09/04/2008 11:00PM

Cause of declines tough to pinpoint

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NEW YORK - More than a dozen Saratogas ago, when Gerry McKeon was the president of the New York Racing Association, he became slightly exasperated by the umpteenth question at a meet-ending press conference about the factors responsible for year-over-year attendance and handle variations.

"Don't forget," he said in a deadpan, "it rained in Peru last Thursday."

His point then seems relevant now amid a rocky and confusing set of spring and summer business results at major American racetracks: No one is sure what the numbers mean, and you can pin them on just about anything you like, from gas prices to track surfaces to Congressional hearings to the rainfall in Lima.

The numbers from Del Mar and Saratoga completed a trifecta of sharp declines at the nation's three most popular and successful race meetings. Keeneland was down 11 percent in total handle at its spring meeting, and the two summer meets that ended last week showed similar declines of 7 percent in San Diego and 10 percent in Saratoga Springs.

Such drops are alarming after a decade of constant gains at all three venues, and the most comforting explanation is the famous sign that hung in the Clinton campaign headquarters in 1992: "It's the economy, stupid." The theory is that stratospheric gasoline prices prompted racegoers to cut back on their summer motoring trips to the resort tracks and pinched their betting pennies in a worrisome and stagnant economy.

One problem with that answer is that we've been hearing since the dawn of capitalism that gambling in general and horse racing in particular are recession-proof industries. Has that suddenly changed? And why would gas prices have been the issue at Keeneland in the spring, at a time when Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, and Oaklawn were holding steady or showing slight gains over 2007? If the cost of attending the races in person were the real issue, why wouldn't attendance be down sharply with flat or even rising offtrack betting totals?

Of course once you start bringing attendance into the equation, you might as well be analyzing Peru's precipitation. Attendance at Saratoga is highly dependent on merchandise giveaways on Sundays, where each purchase of a coupon to get a shirt or a seat cushion for resale on eBay is officially counted as the presence of a patron, even though some entrepreneurs manage to buy 50 or more coupons. The results of a single unpopular giveaway this year prompted a year-over-year "attendance decline" of 25,000 on a single Sunday, which alone translated to more than a quarter of the 2008 falloff.

Peru aside, rainfall really does matter, as the schizophrenic Saratoga results clearly illustrate. The first half of the meeting, when it rained practically every day and dozens of scheduled turf races were turned into unappealing small-field slopfests, was a disaster. Betting was off a staggering 40 percent in Las Vegas. Then the last three weeks, when each day was a new postcard of perfect weather, business by every metric was virtually even with last year's figures.

Track surfaces became part of the discussion with Keeneland's sharp falloff last spring, and may have been part of Del Mar's decision to maintain its Polytrack differently this year, producing a surface that played far more like dirt than it did last summer. Were customers still wary or did they bet with more confidence? Anecdotally, the topic seemed far less of a concern to players this year, but again it is nearly impossible to quantify. Just for the record, despite continued claims from supporters of synthetic tracks that they are indisputably safer than dirt surfaces, there reportedly were five catastrophic breakdowns during races over Del Mar's Polytrack and none in races over Saratoga's dirt.

The biggest business disappointment of the summer, though, may have come at Saratoga and on a day where there was a healthy year-over-year business increase: the ontrack turnout of 22,572 for Curlin in the Woodward, up only 2,599 from the 19,973 who turned out for Lawyer Ron on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend a year ago. While a 13 percent increase at the gate would normally be great news, Saratoga had never promoted an individual horse's appearance so heavily and officials had hoped for a crowd of 30,000.

It was the first time in a decade, and only the third time in 25 years, that a reigning Horse of the Year had run at Saratoga. The mild turnout was not a persuasive argument that the game would be thriving if only its stars stayed in training longer.