06/09/2002 11:00PM

Crowd, handle, ratings up

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NEW YORK - Despite a Kentucky Derby result that failed to thrill many horse racing fans, the 2002 Triple Crown ended up being a runaway success for racetracks and NBC as they rode the coattails of War Emblem's improbable bid for the Triple Crown Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.

It will be remembered as the Triple Crown that started with a whimper but ended with a bang. The overnight television rating for the Belmont broadcast on NBC was a 9.2 - up 88 percent over last year and a full point higher than the Kentucky Derby's rating five weeks ago. Handle on the race and Belmont Park's Saturday card shattered all records, both on and off track. And a reported 103,222 showed up to witness the race in person, a record by more than 17,000.

Before the Kentucky Derby, and immediately afterward, the Triple Crown was derided by some for failing to generate excitement, but by the Belmont Stakes, the racing industry had an unqualified winner on its hands.

The War Emblem story had its share of twists, and it was infused with dramatic elements, including an entertaining cast of characters.

The principals included Baffert, Ahmed bin Salman, the Saudi prince who bought a 90 percent share in War Emblem just 23 days before the Derby; and Russell Reinemann, a Chicago steel company executive who sold the share and then became embroiled in a controversy with Salman over the distribution of a $1 million bonus.

"Baffert is always colorful, you had the intrigue of the prince, and you had the story of buying the horse three weeks before the Derby," said Barry Schwartz, the chairman of NYRA.

"It was a great story, a come-from-nowhere story, and that got people excited," said Cameron Blanchard, a spokeswoman for NBC. "Everyone had ruled out a Triple Crown beforehand, so when War Emblem won the Preakness, it caught everybody by surprise. And people love to see a chance for history to be made."

On track on Saturday, the New York Racing Association reaped the rewards of ideal weather, vigorous local promotion of the race, and a sustained resurgence of interest in the Belmont Stakes. The 103,222 attendance figure reported by NYRA easily broke the 1999 Belmont record of 85,818.

Attendance for the Belmont has made strong gains since 1995, when 40,797 people showed up. The next year, 70,682 people watched the Baffert-trained Silver Charm fail to become the sport's first Triple Crown winner since 1978. Two more Triple Crown bids immediately followed, and attendance continued to grow, with 80,162 in 1998 for Real Quiet's bid and 85,818 in 1999 for Charismatic's try.

Handle on this year's race also broke all records. Total commingled handle on the Belmont Stakes was $51,292,575, a stunning increase of 41 percent over the record set in 1999, while ontrack handle for the race was $3,753,983, a 19.4 percent increase over the 1999 record of $3,143,508.

Total handle on the 12-race Belmont card was $95,423,752, an increase of 28.7 percent over the 1999 non-Breeders' Cup Day record. Total ontrack handle was $12,045,114, a 13.8 percent increase.

NBC's Belmont broadcast was the highest rated television broadcast of a horse race since the 1992 Kentucky Derby broadcast and the highest for a Belmont since 1987. The broadcast had a 21 share, meaning that slightly over one-fifth of all people watching television were watching the Belmont. The figures peaked during the race itself with a 12.8 rating and 28 share.

The last time a Triple Crown was on the line, in 1999, rating was 6.6 with a 17 share, the highest overnight rating in the past decade. NBC's number this year beat that figure by 39 percent.

During the broadcast, NBC focused on War Emblem's impending coronation while leaving little room for any other subjects, including an extended analysis of other contenders. The network's one-track mind backfired somewhat when War Emblem ran up the track and viewers were left with little feeling for the emotionally charged win for trainer Ken McPeek's Sarava.

David Michaels, the producer of the broadcast, said on Monday that the network had planned to talk about McPeek while the horses were led to the paddock. But Michaels said he made the decision to instead focus on the gamesmanship among several trainers over who would bring his horse to the paddock first.

NBC's reporters could not run down Baffert for a live interview after the race. "Baffert split and went back to the barns," Michael said.

The network made up for that somewhat with a live interview of War Emblem's jockey, Victor Espinoza, that was deftly combined with illuminating replays of the horse's stumble out of the gate. But Baffert's absence prevented the broadcast from reaching a comprehensive conclusion.

The fleeting nature of the public's brief seasonal affair with horse racing was on display just 18 hours after War Emblem's defeat. That day, with a $685,751 pick six carryover on the line, 8,517 showed up at Belmont Park in ideal weather.

"All that attention builds, though," Schwartz said. "It doesn't happen for one event. I'm sure that some of the people that showed up at Belmont on Saturday for the first time will be back. They have to be back. It was a great day."