05/10/2006 11:00PM

Without a deal, no Derby scores

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Imagine that you were watching the Kentucky Derby in Las Vegas last Saturday and had a $2 trifecta bet of 8-13- 2.

Barbaro. Bluegrass Cat. Steppenwolfer.

During the running of the race, you know that Barbaro and Bluegrass Cat are just behind the pace and Steppenwolfer is somewhere back there in the middle of the pack. It's impossible to hear much with everyone screaming, but you hear racecaller Tom Durkin mention their names a few times and figure they're all getting the trips you expected.

Turning for home, Barbaro takes command and you start to get goose bumps as Bluegrass Cat also passes the pacesetters and Steppenwolfer must be coming with his late kick.

You watch the horses cross the finish line. Barbaro completes his romping victory, but as the crowd cheers his performance, you wait to see who completes the tri. You're pretty sure that it's Bluegrass Cat holding on for second, and it looks like the No. 2 saddle cloth of Steppenwolfer getting up for third - and then you hear Durkin confirm your thoughts.

Yes, yes, yes.

Your head is spinning. During the ensuing post-race interviews and replays, there are no mentions of stewards' inquiries or jockey objections, and you have plenty of time, in excess of 10 minutes, to speculate on your windfall before the prices from Churchill Downs are posted.

Even though Barbaro went off as the second choice, Bluegrass Cat went off at 30-1 and Steppenwolfer 16-1, so in a 20-horse field you figure it has to come back at least a few grand, maybe $5,000 or - dare you dream? - $10,000.

Then NBC comes back to Churchill Downs from commercials and shows the payouts. You glance down toward the trifecta and see $11418.40. You squint to count back three digits from the decimal to see where to put the comma: $11,418.40. Eleven freakin' thousand dollars. Sweet!

Your mind races again as you get in line to collect. Even after Uncle Sam (or the wife, or whomever) takes a cut, what to do with the money? Buy that big-screen TV you've always wanted? Take a trip to an exotic island? Pay off some credit cards?

You get to the front of the line and give the teller a smile as you hand over your ticket. They put it in the machine and your payoff pops up on the screen: $602.

$602?

What the heck? There must be some mistake. Perhaps that's for a different ticket you didn't even know you had, perhaps the exacta?

You ask for the ticket and confirm it's for Churchill race 10, with the 8-13-2 in the trifecta. You feel yourself turning pale and look to the teller, who then explains there's a house limit of 300-1 on the trifecta.

You feel sick. You feel cheated. You feel like punching something, or someone, and the teller takes a step back from the machine. What would you do? What could you do? Six hundred freakin' dollars. That won't go very far.

Fortunately, this scene didn't play out last weekend as the race books here in Nevada were tied into the parimutuel pools at Churchill Downs for the Derby and all the other races over the weekend. But this is exactly the kind of scenario the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association and the Churchill Downs Simulcast Network were trying to avoid two weeks ago when they were belatedly coming to an agreement in advance of the Churchill meet.

So, $2 trifectas did pay $11,418.40 in Nevada race books and the exacta paid $587 instead of being capped at $302 at books that have house limits of 150-1 on exactas or $402 at books that have limits of 200-1. And the superfecta, which paid $59,388 with Brother Derek in the fourth slot and $84,860.40 with Jazil, who dead-heated for fourth, wouldn't have even been offered.

During the dispute, many people said that Churchill would be hurt more than the books if there wasn't a contract signed by the the time Derby was run, because the race books here would have booked the race anyway. But while it's true that, based on an estimated cut of 3.5 percent of the $5.6 million handle from Nevada, Churchill would have missed out on roughly $200,000 in simulcast fees on Derby Day, the books here would have lost big, too, even if not in a monetary sense.

It would have been a public-relations nightmare for the casinos, which would have had to deal with every bettor that felt ripped off by having his payoffs capped. In addition, books here wouldn't have offered customers a chance to go for the popular superfecta or pick four or pick six wagers at Churchill or even Hollywood. The handle probably wouldn't have come anywhere near that $5.6 million figure for the Derby or the nearly $11 million statewide total betting on the day's card.

There's a saying that if you can't be in Vegas for the Derby, your second choice should be Louisville. But if the opportunity doesn't exist to go for those big scores, it would have been better to be almost anyplace else.

Thankfully, cool heads prevailed, and it was business as usual.