06/12/2006 12:00AM

With no clear superstar, Belmont's numbers dip


Handle and attendance for this year's Belmont Stakes in New York fell short of last year's numbers while just barely exceeding the expectations of the New York Racing Association, the operator of Belmont Park.

According to NYRA, attendance on a partly sunny day with high winds was 61,168, compared to last year's reported crowd of 62,274. Total handle on the 13-race card was $81,465,277, the fifth-highest in Belmont history but well short of last year's handle of $87,610,555, also for a 13-race card.

The handle was the second-highest for a Belmont Stakes Day in which a Triple Crown was not on the line. The all-time Belmont Stakes Day handle record, set in 2004, is $114.9 million.

Handle on Saturday's Belmont Stakes alone was $40,655,138, according to the Equibase chart of the race. The total includes win, place, show, exacta, trifecta, and superfecta betting, but not wagers in any multi-race bet linked to the Belmont. Last year, betting on the Belmont, which had an 11-horse field, was $48,049,748. The record handle on the Belmont Stakes alone is $63.7 million, set in 2004.

Last year's Belmont was won by Afleet Alex, the third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby who won the Preakness Stakes going away after nearly falling at the head of the stretch. The stumble elevated Afleet Alex to a level of popularity unmatched by any of the entrants in this year's Belmont, which was won by Jazil and did not have in its field either the Derby or Preakness winner.

Television ratings for this year's Belmont broadcast on ABC reflected the lack of star power. The "fast-national" rating dived 35 percent to a 3.5, according to Mark Mandel, a spokesman for ABC and ESPN, which are both owned by Disney. Last year's fast-national rating, which is considered closer to a final rating than the traditional overnight rating, Mandel said, was a 5.4, well below the 13.0 fast-national rating in 2004, when Smarty Jones, one of the most popular horses in the past 20 years, failed to win the Triple Crown when finishing second in the Belmont.

Mandel said that a better comparison for the 2006 rating would be the 2000 Belmont Stakes, the last time that both the Derby and Preakness winners did not run in the Belmont, and also the last time that ABC broadcast the Belmont. The fast-national rating that year was a 3.1, Mandel said. Final ratings were to be available on Tuesday.

Mandel said that it was the policy of ESPN's research department not to release share data on its broadcasts. Share measures the percentage of televisions in use that are tuned to a specific program.

Belmont officials had said in the week leading up to the Belmont that they were projecting a crowd of 60,000. They also said they expected handle to be equal to last year's, but those predictions were made before three days of rain hit the New York area just prior to Saturday. The soft condition of the turf course led to numerous scratches that reduced the fields of the three grass races on Belmont Day. Belmont also decided to run only three turf races this year over the soft going, compared to five last year.

Belmont officials did not return phone calls on Monday, a dark day, but in a release, Charles Hayward, the chief executive of NYRA, said: "I would like to thank our great fans for coming out to see a remarkable performance by Jazil and a terrific day of racing."

Ontrack betting on the 13 races was $8,958,323, second-highest for a Belmont Stakes card in which a Triple Crown was not on the line. For the first time this year, NYRA offered simulcast racing during a Belmont card; handle on the simulcasts ontrack was $556,657.