01/26/2004 12:00AM

Attendance rises, handle falls

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Attendance figures at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park made sizable gains for the two tracks' second annual Sunshine Millions card on Saturday, but handle on the tracks' races continued to disappoint compared to last year.

The mixed results indicate that Magna Entertainment Corp., the racing conglomerate that owns both tracks, has succeeded in generating interest in an event restricted to competition between California-bred and Florida-bred horses. But the results also underline the disappointing returns at Magna tracks as the company struggles to take control of its signal from off-track betting locations and drum up business for its on-line wagering platform, XpressBet.

The announced attendance at Gulfstream Saturday was 25,179, up 34.5 percent from last year's Sunshine Millions card, when 18,719 showed up. At Santa Anita, on a relatively cold day for Southern California, attendance was up 10.4 percent, from 17,108 in 2003 to 18,888 this year. The increases are strong in an age when ontrack attendance is considered a marginal indicator of the health of the racing industry.

On the flip side, handle at the two tracks continued a downward trend that has been evident since the beginning of the two meets three and four weeks ago. All-sources handle on the 11-race Gulfstream card dipped 12.4 percent, from $15.8 million to $13.8 million, while all-sources handle on the 10-race Santa Anita card dropped 10.5 percent, from $19.5 million to $17.5 million.

Each track had the same number of races as last year and field sizes were strong. At Gulfstream, 109 horses ran in the 11 races, an average field of 9.9 horses per race, while at Santa Anita, 94 horses ran in the 10 races, an average of 9.4.

Out-of-state handle has dropped dramatically this year at both Santa Anita and Gulfstream, concurrent with Magna sharply restricting the availability of its racing signals to account-wagering companies and the general public. Magna also raised the price of its signal to several rebate shops, according to rebate shop operators, but two weeks ago renegotiated the contracts to provide incentives for rebate-shop customers to play the signals.

Reaction to Magna's new policy has been critical in some quarters. At the website www.boycottmagna.com, which was started up in the wake of the signal cutbacks, more than 470 people have signed a roster since Jan. 5, vowing not to bet on any races from Magna tracks.

Scott Savin, the president of Gulfstream, said that the handle drops for the Sunshine Millions were related to "corporate decisions," but declined to comment further. He said that Gulfstream's ontrack business was encouraging, and he cited the appearance of actor Joe Pesci, a concert by REO Speedwagon, and fans' increased familiarity with the Sunshine Millions concept for the attendance gain.

"I think it was all three of those things together that helped us," Savin said. He guessed that about 2,000 people came to the track just to see Pesci, whose namesake horse was featured on all four local network newscasts on Friday night.

Overnight ratings for a two-hour broadcast on NBC-TV of the Sunshine Millions races were up 13 percent, according to Kathy Connors, a spokeswoman for NBC Sports, from 1.5 last year to 1.7. In 2003, the broadcast was preceded by local programming, but this year the broadcast was preceded by a celebrity golf tournament headed by Michael Jordan, a much stronger lead-in.

Last year, Magna purchased a one-hour window for the broadcast, but this year, Magna bought a two-hour slot. According to television officials, the cost for a national two-hour slot was approximately $400,000, or $200,000 an hour, with production costs for the live two-hour telecast running approximately $150,000.