Updated on 06/09/2014 10:43AM

Belmont handle smashes records

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California Chrome may not have brought home a Triple Crown, but he meant record business for Belmont Park on Saturday, with the track easily setting handle records for the race and for its revamped 13-race Belmont Stakes card.

Total handle on the Belmont Stakes was $90.3 million, according to multiple handle sources, 32.7 percent better than the record of $68 million set in 2004, when Smarty Jones failed to take the Triple Crown. Total handle on the entire card was $150.3 million, according to Belmont’s operator, the New York Racing Association, shattering the 2004 full-card record by $39.3 million, a difference of 35 percent.

While the overnight television rating for the Belmont Stakes broadcast on NBC did not approach the rating posted for the 2004 edition of the race – a rating that made the 2004 Belmont the most-watched racing broadcast of the modern era – it was still the second-highest rating all-time for the race, at a 12.9. The overnight rating for the 2004 Belmont broadcast was a 15.9.

NBC said the overnight rating made the broadcast the most-watched sporting event on NBC since the Sochi Winter Olympics. Share, which measures the percentage of televisions in use that were tuned to the broadcast, was a 29.

Attendance on a picture-perfect day was announced by NYRA at 102,199, far short of the record announced in 2004, when NYRA said 120,139 were on hand. However, NYRA chief executive Chris Kay, who took the job last year, hinted several weeks ago that he believed the 2004 figure may have been inflated, and the stands at Belmont Park on Saturday appeared to be at least as full as in Smarty Jones’s year. It was still the third-largest reported crowd in Belmont history, behind 2004 and 2002, another year in which a Triple Crown was on the line.  

Further casting doubt on the 2004 attendance figure, ontrack handle Saturday was $19.1 million, NYRA said, more than $4.5 million more than what the 2004 crowd bet. (NYRA counts money bet at Aqueduct and through its account-wagering service, NYRAOne, in the ontrack figure.)

The ontrack handle number also was easily a record for any race card at Belmont, beating the ontrack handle record set when Belmont hosted the Breeders’ Cup in 2005. Ontrack handle for that Saturday card was $14.7 million. All-sources handle that day was $124 million.

The figures were testament to both the enormous star power of California Chrome and to the impressive lineup of races NYRA put together for the card by moving some of its most attractive stakes – including the Met Mile and Acorn – to Belmont Day. That the records were set at a time when racing handle is on pace to be $11 billion this year – compared to $15.1 billion in 2004 – was all the more impressive.

But there was a cost as well. California Chrome’s dead heat for fourth left many viewers disappointed, the 12th in a string of horses since 1979 to take the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but fall short in the Belmont. The string includes three consecutive failed bids from 1997-99 and from 2002-04, simultaneously displaying how hard the Triple Crown is to win in the modern era and how difficult it is for racing to rely on its often-fleeting racetrack stars. Aside from the disappointment on the racetrack, thousands of patrons were stuck in traffic for hours leaving the track or stranded when the Long Island Rail Road shut down the track’s platform for safety concerns.

For NYRA’s racing operations, there were costs for putting together such a rich card as well. The association has already taken a handle hit on the days when the stakes races moved to the Belmont card were previously run, an opportunity cost that has to be considered when fully evaluating the association’s decision to put so many eggs in one basket. Whether the handle gains on Belmont Day will be enough to offset the losses on the other days is unclear. And if a horse had not shown up with a Triple Crown bid Saturday, the handle numbers would have been far lower. 

But for the day, all the numbers were impressive. Compared to last year, when a Triple Crown was not on the line, handle for the Belmont was up 71.3 percent, with betting on the race exceeding the handle on the entire 13-race card last year. Handle on the full card was up 68 percent compared to 2013.

The 2004 Belmont Stakes Day handle was well above any other Belmont Day, with the Triple Crown bid of Big Brown drawing $100.2 million in total bets and the 2003 run by Funny Cide drawing $93.1 million. Compared to 2008, Saturday’s full-card handle was up 50 percent, and the Saturday total was 61.4 percent better than the 2003 figure.

The card Saturday at Belmont had nine graded stakes, six of them Grade 1’s, with total purses of $8 million, the second-richest card of races on the U.S. calendar this year, behind only the Saturday Breeders’ Cup card. NYRA decided to revamp the card earlier this year, well before California Chrome had even started in the Derby. A total of 132 horses ran in the 13 races this year, compared to 128 last year.