07/29/2005 12:00AM

If foreign tracks can draw fans, why can't we?


NEW YORK - Business is booming at British racecourses this year. Record crowds have been seen at Sandown Park for the Eclipse Stakes on July 2 and opening day of Glorious Goodwood this past Tuesday. Newmarket's three-day midweek July meeting attracted a record total of 32,838 patrons. The Friday, June 25 crowd at Chester, where the feature race was merely a Class 3 handicap, was a track record 26,589. And Epsom's Oaks Day crowd on June 3 was 50 percent better than last year's.

When you consider that British racegoers regularly pay between $20 and $100 just for the privilege of walking through the gates, those figures are downright astonishing. They are also evidence of an industry that is clicking on all levels.

In France, the introduction of free admission on springtime Sundays and holidays at Parisian tracks has led to an increase in overall attendance in summer and fall. Arc Day at Longchamp last Oct. 3 drew more than 50,000 fans from around the world. The seven-day Galway Festival on Ireland's Atlantic coast is expected to attract more than 120,000 people. Cheltenham's National Hunt Festival annually attracts nearly 200,000 crazed jump racing fans to its four-day midweek meeting 120 miles west of London in frequently deplorable weather.

All of which casts a shadow on the 7 percent decline in attendance at Hollywood Park's recently completed spring/summer meeting. Or the declining attendance at Belmont Park and Aqueduct, which have played a key role in the estimated $40 million in losses the New York Racing Association will have incurred in the three-year period ending Dec. 31.

Some pundits have been waxing for years that attendance at racetracks is no longer relevant. Their line of reasoning, if it can be called that, runs something like, "With offtrack betting, phone betting, and computer betting, why should anyone bother going out to the track?"

That faulty surmise, from which American racetrack administrators seem defenseless, is easily refuted. The three forms of wagering away from the track will ultimately attract only gamblers. Racetrack attendance, on the other hand, creates not only people who will bet on the races, but also racing fans, from which group will be culled a majority of future owners, trainers, jockeys, racetrack administrators, and racing journalists.

If ontrack attendance dwindles, so, too, does the pool of talent from which racing can draw its non-wagering participants. The lower the size of that pool, the less chance racing has of attracting quality people. Drop into your local OTB shop one day this week and count the number of future Thoroughbred owners you find there. You won't need a calculator to do the figures.

Bettors will always be attracted to racing as an outlet for their habit, but they will also be drawn to casinos, lotteries, poker, and sports wagering. They will weigh the angles offered by each and select according to their inclination. Many of them will not even consider horse racing.

Attendance at the track is the best way of getting people interested in those aspects of racing other than betting, although it must be added that actually seeing horses in the paddock, watching them go down to the start, and viewing a race in person are handicapping tools that phone and home bettors can never experience.

Other than paltry ontrack handles that are forcing some American racetracks to the brink, a decline in the number of American owners may be the most crucial effect of falling ontrack attendance. At this month's Fasig-Tipton Kentucky select yearling sale, the buy-back rate was 39 percent, a 54 percent increase from last year. By comparison, in Japan, where racetracks are always jam-packed, the buy-back rate at the recently completed Japan Race Horse Association select foal sale was a record low 20 percent. The twin threats of overbreeding and lack of owners are something the bloodstock industry may have to address sooner rather than later.

In Britain, as in America, a disproportionate amount of Thoroughbred wagering is conducted at offtrack betting shops. In Britain they also have a strong home-wagering market. Yet the on-course game is thriving there. It is up to American racetrack managers to reverse the appalling trends that have driven fans away from our racetracks. The answer does not lie in the esoteric realms of intertrack wagering, super-duperfectas, pick-six all-wins, or ontrack slots. It lies in making the live ontrack experience a marketable commodity.