06/07/2010 11:00PM

Belmont Day business declines steeply


If New York Racing Association officials were looking for an unequivocal reason to celebrate after a difficult six months, the financial results of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday will keep them looking.

Handle, attendance, and television ratings for the card on Saturday at Belmont Park plummeted compared with 2009, in some cases to the lowest levels in more than a decade. Though the results were not entirely unexpected given the absence of the winners of the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the declines underscore the problems facing racing both in New York and the national marketplace as the industry continues to struggle.

All-sources handle on the card dropped 17.2 percent, from $89,332,671 in 2009 to $73,982,665 this year, according to NYRA, the lowest figure since 2001, when Point Given won the Belmont after capturing the Preakness following a disappointing run in the Kentucky Derby as the favorite. As it was this year, a Triple Crown was not on the line in 2009.

Field size, one of the significant determinants of handle, was similar this year to last year, with 117 horses running on a 13-race card compared with 120 horses in 2009.

Attendance dropped 13.3 percent, from 52,186 in 2009 to 45,243, on a day with temperatures in the low 90s, abundant sunshine, and relatively high humidity. It was the smallest crowd to attend the Belmont Stakes since 1996, when Editor s Note won in front of a crowd of 40,797.

The Belmont Stakes enjoyed a resurgence through most of the last decade, in large part because of four bids for the Triple Crown over the past eight years - in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2008. All were unsuccessful. Attendance exceeded 100,000 for each running from 2002 to 2004 while attendance for the 2008 bid by Big Brown was 94,476. The 2004 Belmont set an attendance record at 120,139.

Both wagering and attendance figures for the Belmont Stakes are considerably more robust in years in which it is possible for a horse to win the Triple Crown. This year, neither the Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver, nor the Preakness winner, Lookin At Lucky, ran in the Belmont.

NYRA has struggled to regain its financial footing since emerging from bankruptcy in 2008, in large part because of the bankruptcy of the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation which owes NYRA $17 million and the failure by the state to name an operator for a casino at Aqueduct that is expected to provide at least $60 million in subsidies to the state racing industry each year. Two weeks ago, the state approved a $25 million loan to NYRA to keep it afloat through next summer, when the casino is expected to be close to opening.

The Belmont Stakes was broadcast on ABC, and the 90-minute telecast from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Eastern received a 3.1 overnight rating, down 38 percent from the 5.0 overnight rating last year. Mark Mandel, a spokesman for ABC, said that the rating for last year's telecast was "unusually high" because of interest in the Triple Crown races generated by the longshot Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and the filly Rachel Alexandra's win in the Preakness. Mandel said that non-Triple Crown Belmonts usually generate an overnight rating in the mid-to-high 3s.

On-track handle Saturday was $7,598,840, a decline of 15.6 percent compared with last year and the smallest handle since the 1996 running.

There was one positive note. Wagering on the late pick 4, which had a $1 million guaranteed pool, was $2,026,444, the second-highest pick four pool in NYRA history, according to the association.