Updated on 09/17/2011 9:33PM

How big a Belmont crowd?


NEW YORK - There will be win, place, show, exacta, trifecta, superfecta, pick-three, pick-four, and pick-six wagering on the 137th Belmont Stakes next Saturday, but one other betting pool would be particularly challenging and lively: How many people are going to show up? Which way would you want to go on an over-under bet of 75,000?

The answer is going to say a lot about the lasting effect of three consecutive Triple Crown bids, which produced the only three six-digit attendances in New York racing history. Those looking to take the over will cite the record figures of 103,222 for War Emblem in 2002, 101,864 for Funny Cide in 2003, and 120,139 for Smarty Jones last year. Even a 20 percent dropoff from those numbers this year would mean a crowd of more than 80,000.

The case for the under goes like this. The only two Belmonts without a Triple Crown bid in the last eight years produced turnouts of 73,851 in 2001 and 67,810 in 2000. The 2001 rendition was probably more compelling than this year's due to the presence of Point Given and Monarchos. So if you use the 67,810 from 2000, even a 10 percent increase puts you under 75,000.

If you take the average of the 2000 and 2001 turnouts and say 70,000 is the right base number for a Crownless Belmont, the question boils down to this: How many of the extra 30,000 who turned out for War Emblem and Funny Cide, or the extra 50,000 who came to see Smarty Jones, will be back this year?

It's hard to tell whether any of those 30,000 to 50,000 extra people have become any more involved in racing or are likely to return to the track. Other than the endlessly-invoked ESPN/Chilton popularity poll supposedly showing an uptick of "interest" in racing among the general populace, there is not a single statistic suggesting that these Triple Crown bids have attracted any new business to the turnstiles or betting windows.

Will they even help out once a year? The question is how much fun those people really had. Was the thrill of playing witness to history exceeded by the traffic snarls and commuter horror stories about being herded into pens to ride the Long Island Rail Road? Sharp increases this year in ticketing and admission prices, while overdue and arguably reasonable in comparison to the cost of attending the Derby and Preakness, have further alienated some regular attendees.

One other factor complicates the equation. Since 2001, account-wagering has gotten tens of thousands of New Yorkers accustomed to playing from home, and even those without access to the in-home simulcast feed or TVG can watch most of the card and all the stakes races on ESPN and NBC. Nassau County OTB last year opened a sumptuous Race Palace facility that will be packed on Belmont Day. So in the absence of a Crown bid, it's possible that more former attendees will be watching in a home or simulcast theater than in 2000 and 2001.

My inclination is to take the under on 75,000, but whatever the number is, any long-range view of attendance for the Belmont is at heart a positive one. Even the low point in the last eight years, the 2000 rendition that lacked both the Derby (Fusaichi Pegasus) and Preakness (Red Bullet) winners, was 67,810; that's 2,393 more than turned out 22 years earlier for Affirmed and Alydar.

This year's race is a tough sell. Afleet Alex is a deservedly popular colt, but the idea that the public is salivating for a rematch or rubber match between him and Giacomo is as far-fetched as the canard that Giacomo had some sort of nightmarish trip in the Preakness that accounts for his 9 3/4-length defeat. He was 11 lengths back after a half-mile, eight back in the stretch, and did nothing but lose ground behind the leader while completely clear and inching past tired horses in the stretch. Maybe he will like 12 furlongs more than Afleet Alex will, but it is otherwise difficult to see a reversal of the Preakness outcome.

The most disappointing development regarding the race is Sheik Mohammed's decision not to run Oratory, who might well have been the second choice in the betting off his stakes-record Peter Pan victory, which earned a lofty Beyer Speed Figure of 114. Granted, he got an easy opening half-mile that left him with a full tank late, but the Belmont often unfolds the same way and this is hardly a speed-packed lineup. Given the Sheik's obsession with winning a Triple Crown race, and his penchant for running horses of questionable quality and foundation in them, the decision to withhold a superior colt coming off an outstanding performance in a traditional Belmont prep is all the more mysterious.