Updated on 11/07/2011 8:20PM

Breeders' Cup television ratings drop along with handle

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Despite the addition of a 15th race this year, total commingled handle on the Breeders’ Cup declined by 5.1 percent this year compared with last year’s record total, with several factors, most prominently the absence of a superstar like Zenyatta, contributing to the drop.

The decline in betting was coupled with a dramatic fall in television ratings for live broadcasts on Friday and Saturday on the ESPN family of networks, along with a significant dip in the combined Friday-Saturday attendance figure at Churchill Downs, the host of the Breeders’ Cup for the second consecutive year. All together, the declines underscored the impact that Zenyatta had on last year’s event, when handle and television ratings soared to records despite negative trends buffeting the racing industry.

For the 15 races held on Friday and Saturday, total commingled handle was $140,070,365, down 5.1 percent compared with record commingled handle last year of $147,524,454 for 14 races. For the full cards offered on Friday and Saturday at Churchill, total commingled handle on 22 races was $155,525,947, down 4.9 percent compared with record handle of $163,619,784 for 20 races at Churchill over the two days last year.

The declines were not out of place in an industry that has seen a drop of nearly 30 percent in commingled wagering handle on U.S. races over the last three years. It was also unreasonable to expect that Breeders’ Cup could match the record results of last year, even with the addition of the 15th race, the Juvenile Sprint, considering the 15.5-percent jump in handle last year because of a record wagering total in the Classic and the bump provided by the Breeders’ Cup’s first pick six carryover.

Ken Kirchner, the Breeders’ Cup’s consultant on wagering and simulcasting, said on Monday that he was still analyzing the pools for the Friday and Saturday card and declined to comment on the figures.

The total all-sources handle for the races, including separate-pool wagering and the amount of matched bets on Betfair, will likely not be available for another week, Kirchner said, because of delays in reporting from several foreign jurisdictions. Last year, all-sources wagering on 14 races was $157.5 million, not counting $23 million in matched bets on Betfair. The separate-pool handle this year is expected to suffer from the absence of any Breeders’ Cup races in Hong Kong, where simulcasts of six Breeders’ Cup races last year drew separate-pool bets of $4.9 million.

Overnight ratings for the broadcasts on Friday and Saturday plummeted compared with last year. According to figures provided by ESPN spokesperson Nate Smeltz, the overnight rating for the Classic on ESPN dropped from a 3.1 last year to a 1.2 this year, while the overall rating for three hours of ESPN coverage before the Classic dropped from a 2.4 last year to a 1.1 this year. Four hours of live coverage on Friday on ESPN2 drew a 0.3 overnight rating, compared to a 0.4 last year.

"Understanding that Zenyatta was a once in a generation phenomenon, the numbers for this year are within our expectations and we're pleased with the overall growth of the international audience over the last few years,” said Peter Rotondo, Breeders’ Cup Vice President of Media and Entertainment.

Attendance on Friday was 40,677, a 2-percent decline over the record Friday attendance of last year. Saturday attendance was 65,143, a decline of 10.4 percent from the crowd of 72,739 for the Saturday card last year, when Zenyatta attempted to retire undefeated with a second consecutive win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Though the declines were substantial, the commingled handle total was on par with the commingled handle for the 2009 event at Santa Anita Park, when Zenyatta made her second consecutive appearance at the Breeders’ Cup and won her first Breeders’ Cup Classic. In addition, the attendance over two days this year was the second-highest combined attendance for the Breeders’ Cup since the event went to two days in 2007.

The Breeders’ Cup is scheduled to be held at Santa Anita in 2012. Santa Anita was the host of the Breeders’ Cup in 2008 and 2009.