03/28/2003 1:00AM

Slots as cure-all a thing of past

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NEW YORK - The following sentence is not an early April Fool: The road to the Kentucky Derby goes through New Mexico Sunday.

Sunland Park, three miles over the Texas border and adjacent to El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, is really and truly hosting a $500,000 race for 3-year-olds. That jackpot has not attracted a Derby candidate on anyone's top 25, but it has lured trainers Bob Baffert and Steve Asmussen and jockeys Pat Day, Gary Stevens, and Pat Valenzuela to a track better known for Quarter Horse futurities than any connection with Thoroughbred stakes racing of any consequence.

The funding for the event reflects how Sunland has suddenly appeared on the map to the world's most famous race: $100,000 from the Sunland purse account; $100,000 from a breeding farm for the naming rights to what is being called the WinStar Derby; and $300,000 from the site of the race: Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino, with the emphasis on the latter.

Sunland opened its doors Oct. 8, 1958, and for 40 years had no impact on American racing beyond its local market. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame was that Dallas native Jerry Bailey rode his first winner there in 1974.

Then in 1999, ka-ching! Sunland became home to the Nuevo Sol Casino, installing the first 175 of today's 700 slot machines. Over the next two years, thanks to a generous allocation of slot revenues to racing, Sunland's purses showed the highest growth of any track in North America, rising 160 percent from

$1.7 million to $4.4 million for the same five-month winter meet.

Sunday's card, the richest in track history, begins with $32,400 and $35,600 allowance races for Quarter Horses. The economics of the races surrounding the WinStar Derby turn the claiming game on its head: $10,000 claimers will run for

a $22,100 pot, $5,000 statebred claimers going long will be chasing $16,000. No wonder they call New Mexico the Land of Enchantment.

No wonder, too, that every major track-ownership group in the country is shooting for slots, from the New York Racing Association to Magna Entertainment and Churchill Downs Inc. and even once-staid Keeneland. The infusion of slots cash into racing purses, not only in New Mexico but also in places such as Delaware, Louisiana, and Iowa, has been the sole source of significant purse growth.

One problem: The party may be winding down just as the big-shot guests are arriving.

Over the last decade, revenue-strapped states found racinos as a way to legalize casino gambling without saying so, framing their introduction as an expansion of an existing agribusiness rather than going partners with the devil. Tracks were able to cut deals for nearly obscenely high slices of slot profits and ended up with more purse money than their racing deserved.

Today, legislators have wised up and those deals are no longer available. The NYRA has been fighting with New York state for two years now to make an equitable deal, and once-sure things like slots in Maryland and Kentucky have been delayed and are now looking shaky because of wrangling over revenue distribution.

Increasingly severe budget crises have also led some states to look beyond the tracks and abandon the existing-agribusiness argument; they're just about ready to get into bed with the devils named Caesars and MGM and Harrah's. Casino conglomerates are now the tracks' competition in the hallways of state capitols, making an attractive case that they are better qualified than horse-park managers to run slots operations.

John Long of Churchill Downs, Jim McAlpine of Magna, and Barry Schwartz of NYRA were panelists at the recent HTA/TRA convention in Florida and all said that the slots deals available only a year ago are off the table and growing less lucrative for racing by the month. As Long pointed out, if even the state with the Derby, Churchill, and Keeneland is no longer sure that the tracks are the best place to put slots, the outlook is not exactly promising for states where horses are not a statewide religion.

Even the successful early prospectors in the racino gold rush are not guaranteed to keep their rich claims. States are reexamining and soon may be renegotiating those deals. There's more than a little political cynicism in Sunland's putting up a $500,000 Derby prep, just as there was when Delta Downs Racetrack & Casino hosted an even more pointless, slot-fueled $500,000 2-year-old stakes race last December. These tracks will now argue that their generous deals should continue because they are staging races of world-class sporting importance, even if all they're really doing is providing a bloated payday for the seventh- and eighth-best 3-year-olds in the Baffert barn.

Other than rewarding their participants, these new races don't serve the sport at large. There already are too many paths to the Derby, leading to small and uncompetitive fields and a nationwide lack of meaningful showdowns before the main event. It remains to be seen whether they will survive the new scrutiny being given to the deals that made them possible or whether they will be historical curiosities, a reminder of that giddy time when racing thought that slots could solve all its problems.