06/06/2001 12:00AM

NBC and the Belmont challenge

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NEW YORK - Monarchos let NBC down when he failed to duplicate his winning Kentucky Derby run in the Preakness Stakes. Or maybe it was Point Given, the Preakness winner, who let NBC down in the Kentucky Derby when he did not run to what some people consider his true potential.

Either way, NBC is going into its broadcast of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday facing the biggest challenge of its short Triple Crown history - how to sustain television ratings growth without a Triple Crown on the line.

The challenge is one that NBC's predecessor, ABC, knew all too well. ABC broadcast the Triple Crown for 13 consecutive years before losing the rights to NBC for five years, beginning in 2001. Typically, the Belmont ratings doubled in the 1990's when a Triple Crown was on the line. If a Crown was impossible, then ratings usually languished.

Last year, for example, the final Neilsen rating declined to an all-time low of 2.8 when an undistinguished Belmont field that did not include either Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus or Preakness winner Red Bullet was upset by longshot Commendable. That followed ratings of 5.3 in 1997, 5.9 in 1998, and 6.0 in 1999, all years in which a horse had a shot at the Triple Crown. In 1996, the rating was a 2.9 with no Triple Crown on the line.

Even so, officials at NBC and Triple Crown Productions said this week that they expect ratings for the Belmont to increase this year, citing the ratings growth of the network's broadcasts of this year's Kentucky Derby - up 26 percent over last year - and the Preakness Stakes - up 56 percent.

"The expectations have to be realistic when you don't have a Triple Crown," said Ed Seigenfeld, the executive vice president of Triple Crown Productions. "But I would think that the trend will continue upwards. NBC has been promoting the broadcast an awful lot, the Point Given and Monarchos story is a good one, and it's been getting decent play in the local papers."

Television executives are also confident that the decision to move the Triple Crown broadcast a half hour later - inching the last 30 minutes of the program into weekend prime-time - has provided a big push to ratings. Also, NBC has been using its coverage of the NBA playoffs to cross-promote the Triple Crown broadcasts while eliminating any programming competition between the two sports.

Producers have lined up several features for the Belmont broadcast, including a look at the life and death of Chris Antley, the rider of Charismatic, the last horse with a chance at the Triple Crown going into the Belmont. Antley died of a drug overdose late last year after re-emerging as one of the sport's stars in 1999.

The broadcast will concentrate on Monarchos and Point Given, who many people are calling the cream of one of the best 3-year-old crops in a decade. Even though the horses have met only twice, in the Derby and Preakness, NBC officials are playing up the rivalry between the two.

"Obviously, we're looking at this as the rubber match," said NBC spokeswoman Cameron Blanchard. "There's certainly a lot of excitement about those two horses."