06/10/2007 11:00PM

Belmont numbers decline

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Handle and attendance numbers for Saturday's Belmont Stakes card at Belmont Park on Long Island plummeted compared with last year's figures, illustrating the public's lack of interest going into the third leg of the Triple Crown.

It was the third straight year in which handle and attendance dropped significantly, with the numbers declining considerably since Belmont Park attracted 120,139 people and $115omillion in wagers as Smarty Jones attempted to take the Triple Crown in 2004. NYRA officials blamed the drop in handle this year on lack of interest in the Belmont Stakes and the race's seven-horse field.

Interest in the Belmont Stakes is tied to the results of the two previous races, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. No horse was eligible to win the Triple Crown on Saturday, and the Kentucky Derby winner and second-place Preakness finisher, Street Sense, skipped the race.

All-sources handle on the 13-race card on Saturday was $75,587,892, down 7.2 percent from 2006, when wagering was down 7 percent compared with 2005. Handle on the Belmont Stakes was $37,786,382, down 16.2 percent from last year, when 12 horses ran in the race.

Attendance on Saturday under overcast skies was 46,870, down 23.3 percent from the crowd of 61,168 last year. It was the smallest crowd to come to a Belmont since 1996, when 40,797 saw Editor's Note win in a non-Triple Crown year.

Ontrack handle on the 13-race card was $8,843,720, a slight decline from the ontrack total of $8,958,323 last year. The record ontrack total was set in 2004, when $14,461,402 was bet at the track.

Belmont officials noted that the decline in all-sources handle for the card was less than the decline in handle on the Belmont Stakes, illustrating that the lack of interest in the Belmont as a betting proposition accounted for the decline in overall wagering. This year's seven-horse field was the smallest since five horses competed in the 2003 Belmont. Funny Cide was attempting to win the Triple Crown that year.

For the full Triple Crown this year, betting on all three cards declined overall, a phenomenon that has not happened for 16 years. Betting on the Derby card at Churchill Downs was down 4.1 percent, while betting on the Preakness card at Pimlico was down 3.2 percent. Handle on the Derby itself fell this year, by 0.1 percent, while handle on the Preakness was up 1.7 percent.

The silver lining in this year's Belmont is that the win by Rags to Riches, the only filly in the field and the first filly to win the race since 1905, may have been the best result for the short-term future of the sport. The hard-fought win over the Preakness winner, Curlin, generated publicity that likely exceeded the potential response to any other result of the race, save a runaway or record-setting win by Curlin.

The filly's presence, however, made no prerace impact on the number of people drawn to the race, according to the overnight television rating for the two-hour broadcast on ABC. The overnight rating, 3.1, was the lowest ever for a Belmont broadcast and down 14 percent compared with last year's overnight rating of 3.6, according to an ABC spokesman, Mark Mandel. Each overnight rating point equals approximately 660,000 households.