Updated on 09/17/2011 10:42AM

Belmont broadcast draws high ratings


NEW YORK - NBC-TV's broadcast of Funny Cide's attempt to win the Triple Crown in Saturday's Belmont Stakes was the highest-rated racing broadcast since the 1990 Kentucky Derby, according to figures released Sunday by NBC.

The 90-minute broadcast generated a 10.4 rating, up 13 percent compared to last year, when War Emblem was going for the Triple Crown. The rating for War Emblem's Belmont bid was up 88 percent compared with 2001, when no Triple Crown was on the line.

The 2003 rating was the highest since the 11.3 generated by the 1990 Derby broadcast on ABC-TV, and the highest-rated sports broadcast all weekend, including a prime-time Sunday night broadcast of Game 3 of the NBA Finals, which drew an 8.7 overnight.

Share for the Belmont broadcast was 24, meaning that 24 percent of all televisions in use from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Eastern were tuned to the Belmont broadcast. Share last year was 21. The 1990 Derby had a share of 29.

"It's not all that often that you get to dust off the record books and go back into the 1980's and early 1990's," said Kevin Sullivan, NBC's vice president of communications.

Viewers across the country were clearly intrigued by the story of Funny Cide and his connections, but it is uncertain if their enthusiasm will carry forward into any long-term benefit to the sport. After Funny Cide's loss, people in attendance at Belmont Park could be heard complaining, sometimes obscenely, about the horse's performance. Some were even talking about asking for refunds of their $2 general admission.

And in an extraordinary display indicating that the crowd was comprised of far more racing neophytes than gamblers, Empire Maker, the winner of the Belmont, was booed heartily as he made his way to the winner's circle as jockey Jerry Bailey cast an incredulous look to the grandstand. Horseplayers boo 1-9 shots that finish up the track, if they boo at all. They don't boo winners.

For NBC, the story made great theater, translating into great ratings. Funny Cide is a New York-bred gelding with modest bloodlines and equally modest connections, and his unlikely bid for the Triple Crown made headlines in nearly all major U.S. markets in the run-up to the Belmont.

"You couldn't lose with what was certainly the biggest horse racing story in years," said David Michaels, producer of NBC's horse racing broadcasts. "When you've got a great story, it's going to work."

The Saturday broadcast was unique for NBC in one respect: The network did not a use a single cut during the running of the Belmont, preferring to stay with one shot of the action for the entire 1 1/2-mile race. NBC, like other networks, has frequently been criticized by horseplayers for employing too many cuts during races.

Michaels said he made the decision earlier on the card to use only one shot, citing the weather, short field, and probability that Empire Maker and Funny Cide would hook up during the race for an extended duel.

"It allowed us to show everything that we wanted, and we didn't have to get fancy and disorient people," Michaels said.

Funny Cide's popularity also meant big business for the New York Racing Association, the owner and operator of Belmont Park. Attendance on Saturday of 101,864 was the second-largest in the history of the race, despite miserable weather. The record was set last year when 103,222 showed up under picture-perfect skies.

This Saturday, however, rain began to fall at 9:15 a.m. and continued throughout the card, while temperatures hovered in the mid-50's. NYRA President Terry Meyocks called it "one of the worst weather days for any major day in the history of Thoroughbred racing." Before the Belmont Stakes was run, NYRA Chairman Barry Schwartz said he believed that the foul weather cost the track anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 attendees.

The small field for the Belmont - six horses - dampened wagering totals somewhat for the race. All-sources handle on the Belmont Stakes was $48,081,345, down $6.4 million from last year's record. Still, it was the second-highest total in the history of the race.

Considering the foul weather, ontrack handle was extraordinarily strong at $12,973,555, a single-day Belmont Park record for a non-Breeders' Cup day. All-sources handle for the entire 13-race card was $92,584,249, the second-best Belmont Park total of all time and 3 percent off the record set last year.

NYRA also did strong business on Friday, in part by including reserved seats for the Friday card with the purchase of reserved seats for Saturday. Attendance on Friday was 28,130 this year, compared with 10,317 last year, and handle was up more than 30 percent.