06/08/2012 1:25PM

Belmont Stakes 2012: Without Triple Crown on the line, NYRA business will take huge hit


Forget about the proverbial other shoe. For the beleaguered sport of horse racing, under attack from a variety of quarters, and particularly for the embattled New York Racing Association, the scratch on Friday of I’ll Have Another from the Belmont was the twelfth or thirteenth shoe to drop.

In an instant, expectations for a 100,000-plus crowd at Belmont on Saturday evaporated. So did the chance for a television audience that would exceed that of nearly any other sporting event of the year. So did the many millions of dollars that NYRA would likely reap from a Triple Crown attempt.

Moreso, so did the hopes that I’ll Have Another could redirect, at least temporarily, the focus of racing’s numerous critics, who have seized on the sport’s problems this year with unrelenting zeal. Despite the public-perception problems facing the colt’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, very few faulted the horse, who won the Derby and the Preakness in dramatic fashion under masterful rides from an eminently likeable Mexican immigrant, Mario Gutierrez. A win in the Belmont would have been one of the few feel-good stories for racing this year.

Citing the “unprecedented” nature of the scratch – only two horses who have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes have not run in the Belmont, both in the 1930s – NYRA officials were reluctant to predict how much attendance and handle figures would be impacted. But precedence certainly provides an indication of just how much a Triple Crown matters to both casual racegoers and handicappers.

The record attendance for the Belmont, 120,139, was set in 2004, when Smarty Jones was going for the Triple Crown. In comparison, last year’s attendance, when the Triple Crown was not on the line, was 55,779. In three of the last four years in which a Triple Crown was possible, attendance topped 100,000.

Handle on the Belmont and the track’s undercard also increases significantly when a Triple Crown is on the line, usually in the range of 25 percent to 75 percent. On the national scene, television ratings for a Belmont Triple Crown are normally anywhere from double to quadruple the ratings for a non-Triple Crown year.

“The Belmont Stakes is still an iconic event on the sports schedule, and the NBC Sports Group broadcasts will treat it as such,” said Adam Freifeld, a spokesman for the network that broadcasts the three races of the Triple Crown. “We’re working now to adjust the game plan accordingly.”

Aside from the numbers, there is the overwhelming sense of deflation. The visceral disappointment felt by the colt’s connections notwithstanding, NYRA officials have been working round-the-clock to prepare for a Triple Crown try, just weeks after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a state takeover of the association’s board. Cuomo engineered the plan following a winter and spring in which NYRA was taken to task for a spate of horse deaths during its Aqueduct winter meet and the release of a report prepared by state regulators suggesting that NYRA officials were aware that the association was incorrectly applying takeout rates for many superexotic wagers for a 15-month period in 2010 and 2011.

“We’re still going to do our job to promote a great day of racing at Belmont,” said NYRA’s spokesperson, Dan Silver.