10/31/2005 12:00AM

Breeders' Cup handle increases 4.1 percent

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Total preliminary handle on the eight Breeders' Cup races at Belmont Park on Saturday was a record $112,865,068, a 4.1 percent increase over the preliminary handle total from last year.

The growth in handle indicates that Breeders' Cup is still capable of increasing betting interest in its card, after two years of marginal growth or declines. Last year, the preliminary betting figure of $108.7 million was a 1 percent increase over the 2003 number, which had declined 1 percent compared to the 2002 event.

The increases were also significant because Breeders' Cup was prohibited from taking wagers from customers of 10 rebate shops - or "secondary parimutuel organizations," as they are sometimes called in the industry - that were cut off by Belmont Park's owner, the New York Racing Association, earlier this year. Last year, SPMO customers bet $7 million on the Breeders' Cup races at Lone Star Park. In addition, many betting outlets in the South and in Florida were impacted by recent hurricanes.

"If somebody [Saturday] morning would have offered us the number that we ultimately generated, we would have said, 'Thank you very much. We'll take those,' " D.G. Van Clief, the president of Breeders' Cup, said Sunday morning. "We figured we would probably be lucky to be on par with last year."

NYRA officials also said that they were pleased with the figures.

"The fact that you were able to beat the all-source commingled handle without the off-shores was a great relief to the Breeders' Cup," said Charles Hayward, the president of NYRA. "Clearly a lot of that money found its way through traditional non-SPMO pools."

Still, the growth this year puts Breeders' Cup a long way from its goal of growing handle to $200 million by 2010. The Breeders' Cup board approved that target figure this year as a benchmark on which to evaluate the management of the organization.

Several countries that did not wager into the commingled pools on Saturday have not yet reported handle figures, according to Ken Kirchner, the Breeders' Cup's vice president of product development. Those countries include all of Latin America and the Caribbean, plus Italy and Sweden. Kirchner said handle from those locations would probably equal $2 million.

Kirchner also said that he was pleased with the figures, but he said that Breeders' Cup needs to further expand into international markets and take advantage of new betting technologies if it is to continue to grow.

"We still need more market penetration," he said. "We still need to give our customers easier ways to bet. We still need to offer better ways to bet from the tabletop in the clubhouse and from the home."

Attendance at Belmont Park on a blustery day was 54,289, the largest of the four Breeders' Cups held at the Long Island track over the past 15 years. Previous attendance numbers for Breeders' Cups at Belmont are: 52,987 in 2001; 37,246 in 1995; and 51,236 in 1990.

Last year, attendance at Lone Star Park in Texas was 53,717.

Preliminary total wagering for the 10-race card at Belmont was $122,106,154, also a record and up 1 percent compared to last year's total of $120,897,141 for a 12-race card. Ontrack handle for the 10 races this year was $14,742,520, compared with $13,326,726 last year. Both totals are well below the ontrack handle record for a Breeders' Cup of $16.3 million set in 2003 at Santa Anita.

However, the ontrack total was a single-day record for Belmont Park, beating the $14,461,402 bet on June 5, 2004. On that day, Birdstone beat the popular Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes, attended by a record 120,139 people.

A total $4,586,700 was bet on the pick six. No ticket had all six winners; in fact, after a series of longshots in the first four legs, only two tickets were alive going into the Turf, the fifth leg in the series, and none were live going into the sixth leg, the Classic, Kirchner said. Forty tickets had five winners with a payout of $90,325 each.

While attendance and handle figures appeared to indicate that interest among horseracing fans is strong for the Breeders' Cup, television ratings for the five-hour broadcast on NBC-TV indicate that interest among the general population continues to wane. The overnight Nielsen rating this year was 1.7, down 11 percent compared to the overnight figure of 1.9 last year and the lowest overnight rating in the event's history. Share for both broadcasts was a 4.

"Not having a horse like Afleet Alex or Giacomo competing led to some decline in casual viewer interest," said Alana Russo, a spokeswoman for NBC Sports, referring to the Preakness and Belmont winner and the Kentucky Derby winner, respectively.

The Breeders' Cup was in its last year of a broadcast agreement with NBC. Next year, the broadcast will move to ESPN, in a 10-year deal that includes revenue-sharing elements. Russo said that NBC promoted the broadcast this year "in the same way we always have."

Final ratings for the broadcast will be released on Thursday. Each overnight ratings point equals approximately 740,000 households; share is a measure of the televisions in use that were tuned to the broadcast.

- additional reporting by David Grening