06/13/2005 12:00AM

Despite far fewer fans, Belmont handles $87M

A crowd of 62,274 showed up to watch Afleet Alex and Jeremy Rose win the Belmont Stakes on a hot, humid day.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Though attendance was down nearly 50 percent, and handle on the Belmont Stakes itself declined 24 percent from last year, New York Racing Association officials were delighted with business at 137th Belmont Stakes.

A crowd of only 62,274 showed up on a hot and humid Saturday to watch Afleet Alex annihilate 10 rivals - including Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo - adding the Belmont Stakes to his acrobatic victory in last month's Preakness Stakes. Last year, a record crowd of 120,139 came to see Smarty Jones's failed bid to win the Triple Crown.

Despite the significant drop in attendance, NYRA handled $87,610,255 from all sources on its 13-race card, a record for a Belmont Stakes Day when a Triple Crown was not on the line. It was the fourth highest Belmont Day handle ever.

All sources handle on the Belmont Stakes itself was $48,049,748, just $2.5 million less than what was wagered two years ago when Funny Cide was going for the Triple Crown. Of course, there were only six horses in that field and no superfecta wagering. There were 11 horses in Saturday's Belmont, and $4.8 million wagered in the superfecta pool.

Handle on the Belmont Stakes was down 24 percent from last year, when a record $63,682,89 was bet.

Ontrack handle on the entire card was $9,463,840, the second-highest handle for a Belmont card when the Triple Crown was not at stake. Last year, ontrack handle was $14,461,402.

Bill Nader, NYRA's senior vice president, was encouraged by the $152 per capita wagered, which "was as good as I've seen on Belmont Day,'' he said.

Nader also pointed out that in February NYRA cut off its signal to 10 off-shore sites that offer customers rebates.

"To lose $16 million on the Belmont alone and to have severed relations with all those rebate shops, to do $87.6 million was a huge accomplishment,'' Nader said.

Belmont offered two $1 million guaranteed wagering pools, each surpassing the guarantee. The pick 6 handled $1.14 million and the pick 4 $1.84 million. Each bet concluded with the Belmont Stakes.

Saturday's attendance was the lowest for a Belmont Stakes since 1996 when 40,797 people watched Editor's Note win. In 2001, the last time the race was run without a Triple Crown possibility, the crowd was 73,857.

Three circumstances likely created the steep crowd decline. First, the Triple Crown was not at stake. Second, prices for clubhouse and grandstand seats were increased anywhere from 50 to 162 percent. The most expensive seat in 2004 cost $45, the same as the least expensive seat this year. General admission rose from $2 to $10. Finally, NYRA banned patrons from bringing in alcoholic beverages.

"Logistically, everything went smoothly,'' Nader said.

"The attendance was a little lower than we thought. We knew were in trouble early on when it was so hot and humid. It was the first really good beach Saturday of the season. I think that hurt us. If it was a picture perfect weather day, I think we could have had 70,000.''

Nader didn't think the higher ticket and admission prices were a big factor, but added, "We'll take a look at everything, and we'll re-evaluate it.''

TV ratings plummet

The overnight television rating for the 90-minute Belmont broadcast on NBC was a 5.0, down 63 percent compared with the 13.4 rating for last year's broadcast, when Smarty Jones was going for the Triple Crown. The rating was the lowest since 2001, also a non-Triple Crown year, when the rating was a 4.9.

Share for the broadcast was an 11, down 60 percent from a 27 last year. Each overnight rating point equals approximately 667,000 households. Share is the percentage of televisions in use at the time that are tuned to the broadcast. The final rating and share will be available on Thursday.

Next year, the Belmont will be broadcast on ABC while the Derby and Preakness will continue to be shown on NBC. ABC signed an agreement with NYRA for the Belmont Stakes rights earlier this year.

NBC said that the average overnight rating for the Belmont Stakes on the network over the last five years was an 8.8, a 66 percent increase over the previous five-year average, when the Triple Crown races were broadcast by ABC. In each five-year period, three horses had a chance for a Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes, but none was successful.

- additional reporting by Matt Hegarty