09/07/2001 12:00AM

Three cheers for Keeneland


NEW YORK - A few years ago, Keeneland Race Course was as unlikely a candidate as you could imagine for progressive gambling innovations. The place didn't even have a race caller and betting seemed an afterthought in an atmosphere where patrician breeders raced their pets just down the pike from their white-fenced nurseries.

Nick Nicholson took over as Keeneland's president 18 months ago and promised that Keeneland would be an industry leader in innovation as well as tradition and gentility. He wasn't kidding. This past Friday, he announced a downright radical series of changes for Keeneland's upcoming fall meeting. Takeout on all wagers, even the most exotic, is being lowered to 16 percent; post times will be coordinated with Belmont's so that races at those two tracks will go off about 15 minutes apart; and a new $1 pick five will be added to Keeneland's betting menu.

Each of these moves deserves the attention and applause of the industry and the patronage of horseplayers.

A 16 percent takeout on bets that are taxed at rates around 25 percent elsewhere is a genuine boon for investors. A pick three that might pay $75 elsewhere will pay $84 at Keeneland. A $300 trifecta will pay $336 and a $1,500 superfecta will return $1,680. Whether you call it a 9 percent takeout differential, a 36 percent tax break or a 12 percent bonus on your winnings, it adds up quickly and significantly.

The coordination of Belmont and Keeneland post times will be a blessing for simulcast players. In the past, races at the two prime Eastern tracks in October have gone off simultaneously or two minutes apart, making proper odds-tracking, post parade watching, and betting a logistical nightmare for the multitrack player.

The new $1 pick five is intriguing. Keeneland is scrapping its $2 pick six, which never caught on with its seasonal and occasional ontrack patrons. Even a carryover would produce a pool of $20,000 or less that was barely worth chasing. The idea of the new bet, which still requires state approval before the meet opens Oct. 5, is to cede the pick six as a national bet to California and New York and try instead to take the current popularity of the pick four one step further.

I hate to see a pick six disappear anywhere, though I never played one at Keeneland. But I do plan to attack the new pick five. It's got an added degree of difficulty versus the pick four but is still affordable as a casual investment with the possibility of a huge return. A well-promoted guaranteed pool the first few days would convince players it was worth a moderate swing.

Keeneland can afford to take the risk that its takeout reduction will result in a short-term revenue hit at a 16-day race meeting, since its booming yearling sales can more than subsidize the experiment. In fact, Keeneland should probably expect such a hit, and the industry should not interpret this as a conclusive failure of the new economic model.

Reducing takeout at Saratoga, as the New York Racing Association did this summer, and now at Keeneland attracts attention because of the high visibility of these short, quality-packed race meetings. For the same reasons that make them popular, these meets are also the worst laboratories for such change. (The same thing would happen at Del Mar.) These meetings are too short for higher handle through increased churn to kick in, and they attract enthusiastic seasonal players who are going to play these meetings ever year whether the takeout is 10 or 30 percent.

Some people were disappointed that the Saratoga takeout reduction did not significantly increase per-capita wagering or migrate bettors to the lower-takeout pools. Such behavioral changes take more than 36 days, however, and can be offset by other changes: The new pick four at Saratoga attracted the loose and shifting money instead of exactas that paid $82.50 rather than $80. The New York Racing Association is likelier to see shifts and overall handle gains through takeout reduction later this year when Aqueduct opens, and a hardcore crowd reacts to the new economics and bets more because its wallets are a bit thicker.

In the meantime, players can help their own cause by voting with their dollars. If enough of us play our discretionary, out-of-town pick threes, trifectas, and superfectas at a 16 percent takeout at Keeneland, perhaps other tracks will do something about the oppressive 20-to-27 percent rates that most states currently impose on these wagers. More than ever in the simulcasting world, being a smart bettor means being a smart shopper.