11/11/2005 1:00AM

Big fields make handle explode


NEW YORK - These days, racetrack operators do a jig when handle is merely flat compared to the prior year, and a gain of a few percent is reason to uncork the champagne. By those standards, Churchill Downs should throw itself a ticker tape parade for what happened the first Saturday in November.

The Nov. 5, 2005 card was remarkably similar to its Nov. 4, 2004 lineup. Both were 11-race cards the first Saturday after the Breeders' Cup, both featured runnings of the Iroquois and Pocahontas Stakes, and both offered the identical betting menu and assortment of exotic pools. There was the same competition for eyeballs from televised sports and for simulcast dollars from Aqueduct and Santa Anita. Even a tiny gain would have been good news.

Instead, there was an eruption of wagering. In 2004, the Churchill card handled $9.26 million. In 2005, the handle was $12.59 million, a gain of $3.3 million and 36 percent, staggering gains that are unheard of in American racing today.

Track officials have attributed the success to a number of factors. This year's program was marketed as Stars of Tomorrow Day, and every race was for 2-year-olds. The completion of the track's renovation project and the scheduling of a chili cookoff were mentioned as positive factors. While none of this hurt, a breakdown of the business ledger for the day points convincingly to a single dominant correlating factor: Field size.

The 2005 card attracted 126 starters, 29 more than the 97 that ran a year earlier. This works out to an average gain of 2.6 horses per race. The differences were spectacular when the difference in field size was well above or below that average.

Four of the 11 races, including both stakes, drew either five or six more starters than their 2004 counterparts. The respective handle increases on these races (the 2nd, 8th, 9th and 10th) were 148 percent, 56 percent, 99 percent, and 63 percent, compared to the total increase of 36 percent for the day. These four races with the most dramatic increases in field size (a total of 48 vs. 26 starters the year before) were up a combined $2.27 million, while the other seven races combined for only a $1.06 million gain.

The converse proved true as well. The only race with significantly fewer starters than a year ago was the sixth, with just eight runners this year and 12 in 2004. Handle for that race was actually down 1.7 percent amid a 36 percent gain for the day. The only other race with any fewer starters than a year ago - this year's 11-horse finale was down one body from 2004 - showed just a 13 percent year-over-year handle increase, well below the day's standards.

Larger field size does not appeal solely to patrons of exotic bets in search of jackpot payoffs which are likelier when, for example, there are 12,012 possible superfecta combinations in a 12-horse field as opposed to 840 in a seven-horse race. Superfecta betting was up just 27 percent year over year, but good old win, place, and show pools were up 44 percent. The biggest increase was on the two pick fours on the card, which handled a combined $187,351 in 2004 and $312,711 this year, a 67 percent spike.

Bigger fields don't just create more permutations. They inflate the odds on contenders, create overlays on possible upsetters who get lost in the shuffle, and make customers feel like they are getting a lot more bang for their bucks.

The clear and dramatic handle gains that flow from bigger fields obviously cannot be replicated on a daily basis. There are too many races and too few horses to have average fields of 11.4 starters, as Churchill did on Nov. 5, but bettors are growing increasingly sour about the seemingly endless parade of five- and six-horse fields in both New York and California. Give them full fields and they are happy to unload the way they do at the Breeders' Cup and on rare cards like Stars of Tomorrow.

The problem is that while track operators and customers want to see larger fields, many owners and trainers are quietly and understandably happier with shorter lineups. In a world of five-horse fields, the average trainer can sport a gaudy 20 percent winning rate and each starter has a better chance at a slice of the purse. It's better for them in the short run, but it is also depressing handle and driving customers elsewhere, which is going to come back to bite the industry in the long run.

Churchill deserves credit for an innovative card of racing, but its success was less a function of marketing and promotion than a resounding reminder that the betting public wants a competitive and bettable product more than anything else.