10/27/2008 12:00AM

Cup numbers hard to gauge


One featured 11 races being contested under an onslaught of rain on the Jersey Shore when money was being manufactured out of thin air. The other featured 14 races run under the warm Southern California sun when economic conditions were possibly the worst they had been in decades.

Those differences are making the wagering results of last year's Breeders' Cup at Monmouth Park in New Jersey and this year's event at Santa Anita Park in Southern California impossible to compare on an apples-to-apples basis. For the record, total commingled handle this year was $132.6 million on 14 races, according to preliminary figures released by Breeders' Cup on Sunday night, whereas total all-sources handle last year was $129.2 million on 11 races, a difference of 2.6 percent.

There is no question that the rapid deterioration in the economic environment both in the U.S. and abroad took its toll on the Breeders' Cup, as it has on race meets across the U.S. over the past three months. The average handle on a Breeders' Cup race this year was $9.5 million, compared with $11.7 million on each Breeders' Cup race run in 2007 at Monmouth Park, a difference of 18.8 percent.

Those figures reflect both the lack of consumer confidence that has gripped the United States over the past three months and the reality that horseplayers have finite bankrolls when approaching big-event days. Even though the Breeders' Cup expanded by three races - or 27 percent - wagering held steady.

"Overall, in light of all the variables, I have to be very pleased with where the numbers are," said Ken Kirchner, the Breeders' Cup's simulcasting and wagering consultant. "The recession is knocking racetracks across the country by about 20 percent."

This year's Breeders' Cup was the second to be held over two days. It was also the first to be held at a track with an artificial surface for its main track. Some handicappers have complained that they are less confident when wagering on races conducted over an artificial surface, but the muddy conditions of last year's Breeders' Cup complicates an analysis of how the different surfaces may have affected handle.

Field size was higher this year than last year, partly on the strength of a large European contingent eager to try their luck on the artificial going. The 14 races conducted this year attracted 156 horses, for an average field size of 11.14. Last year, the 11 races attracted 117 starters, for an average of 10.6.

Attendance held its own when compared to Breeders' Cups conducted at Santa Anita in the past. On Friday, when five Breeders' Cup races restricted to fillies and mares were held, attendance was 31,257. Attendance on Saturday, when nine Breeders' Cup races were held, was 51,331. When the Breeders' Cup was last held at Santa Anita was 2003, with a one-day card with eight races, attendance was 51,648.

Total handle over the two full days of racing was $155.5 million, with $47.9 million in wagering on Friday's 10-race card and $107.6 million bet on Saturday's 11-race card. Total handle last year at Monmouth Park over the two days of racing was $147.4 million, a difference of 5.5 percent.

The pick six offered on Saturday failed to hit its $3 million guarantee at $2,882,343 in handle, putting Breeders' Cup on the line for $117,657. Kirchner said that in addition to the economic troubles, bettors' preferences are shifting gradually in favor of pick four bets - especially in the two-day format, where bankrolls are being spread thinner - and that Breeders' Cup may lower the guaranteed pool for the pick six next year.

"It's not the end of the world," Kirchner said, "but it's something we are going to have to look at next year."

Comparisons between television ratings for the 2007 and 2008 events are also complicated this year because of a split broadcast on Saturday among the family of television properties affiliated with ESPN. The Saturday event was first broadcast on ABC-TV from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Eastern, with ESPN taking over until 7:15 p.m. The ESPN portion of the Saturday broadcast drew a 1.0 overnight rating, compared with a 0.8 last year when the entire Saturday broadcast was on ESPN, whereas the ABC portion drew a 1.3 rating, according to numbers provided by ABC.

The three-hour Friday broadcast on ESPN2 drew a 0.3 overnight rating, compared with a 0.3 rating last year for a two-hour broadcast on the same network, according to the figures.