11/10/2006 1:00AM

Handle says more than TV ratings


NEW YORK - Was Breeders' Cup Day successful by the numbers? That all depends on whether you're more excited by the 15 percent spike in commingled betting handle or disheartened by the 53 percent decline in television ratings.

Everyone expected the ratings to decline to some extent with the switch from 22 years of NBC broadcasts to ESPN's maiden cablecast of the event, if only because 20 million American households do not subscribe to cable. In addition, network ratings for virtually all programming have been in steep decline the last three years, and it is likely that ratings would have been down on NBC as well, though not so dramatically. Even so, no matter how ESPN and Breeders' Cup try to spin it, the low ratings were unexpected and sobering, well short of internal projections and expectations.

Was that offset by the similarly unexpected gains in betting? The question goes to the heart of an unresolved debate central to the marketing of the sport. Those who believe that what racing needs is more general exposure to novices and to general sports fans who pay attention twice a year see the ratings numbers as dire. Those who think the sport instead needs to target the most likely future regulars such as the ESPN audience, and to sell more tickets to existing customers, consider this year's Cup both successful and promising for the future.

The latter camp has finances and recent history on its side. Takeout from betting handle fuels the entire proposition of racing, and the increased action means more direct revenue to the game. Higher ratings last Saturday would not have put an extra nickel into the sport unless you're counting on future revenue from those additional casual viewers someday turning into horseplayers.

Is that a reasonable expectation? Much as everyone within the sport would like the nation to pause and watch some horse races on big days, there is scant evidence that this actually provides any business increases.

From 2002 to 2004, racing rode an unprecedented wave of general media attention and exposure, from the publication of "Seabiscuit" through the Triple Crown bids of Funny Cide and Smarty Jones. The crescendo was a 2004 Belmont Stakes telecast that was the highest-rated television show of any kind that week, garnering a 13.4 Nielsen rating that was nearly 20 times higher than the Breeders' Cup's 0.7 last weekend. It made everyone in racing feel beloved and popular for a while, but business continued to stagnate with no measurable benefit whatsoever from all the fuss.

That disconnect is apparent again in this year's numbers. In 2005, the NBC telecast drew a 1.5 rating and commingled handle was $112 million. This year, with a 0.7 rating on ESPN, it was $129.2 million. There are a few asterisks to that gain, such as the reinstatement of some rebate-house outlets that were barred from the pools at Belmont in 2005, and more direct foreign wagering, but by any measure the betting was much stronger than it was a year ago.

The gains showed up in virtually every pool on the card with a slight tilt toward the increasingly popular exotics. Straight (win-place-show) and exacta betting were both up 14opercent from 2005, while trifectas and superfectas were each up 18 percent. The six pick threes totaled 23opercent more than a year ago, and the two pick fours were up 26 percent. The Ultra Pick Six, basically flat for five years now, was up just 4.4opercent. The only declines of the day came from the Juvenile, where for some reason betting dropped from 1 to 10 percent in every straight and intrarace exotic pool from a year ago. (Could Merv Griffin really have bet that much on Stevie Wonderboy?)

The majority of individual pools were up right around 10 to 15 percent, but those involving the Classic showed truly explosive growth: The $11 million in straight wagering on the race was a 39 percent gain over 2005, while exacta betting ($6.2 million) jumped 40 percent, trifectas ($6.5 million) were up 55 percent, and superfecta action ($2.7 million) was up 52 percent.

Cup officials say their best guess to explain those jumps is that bettors found the Bernardini-Invasor-Lava Man showdown far more compelling than last year's Saint Liam-Borrego-Flower Alley matchup, which was also diminished by the race-day scratch of Rock Hard Ten. They say it's also possible that bettors were reeling and trying to get even after four straight winners at double-digit odds, though last year's Classic was preceded by four only slightly milder upsets.

Whatever the reason, there is clearly some combination at work where more people are playing this game and existing players are betting more. That's something to celebrate and build upon, and perhaps more important than whether casual television viewers are tuning in once a year.