02/01/2008 12:00AM

Not so Super day for racing


ARCADIA, Calif. - Is it Super Sunday already? Man, I've got to do some serious nacho shopping. Time again for every living creature - those above ground anyway - to drop in their tracks and bow in the direction of the Super Bowl. This time Mecca is Phoenix, where a team from New York that plays in New Jersey will try to beat a team from Boston that calls itself New England, if only to appease Vermont.

Los Angeles, of course, does not recognize professional football as such. But then, neither does Oakland and San Francisco lately. As a racing fan, there is something weirdly reassuring in the fact that the major metropolitan Los Angeles area can accommodate two first-class racetracks, but nothing in the way of an NFL franchise.

This does not mean that racing holds a candle to the Super Bowl monster, though. The Kentucky Derby is a grand day, and the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line gives horse racing a real peek at how the big boys play. But consider this, just as perspective. Or cold water. Horse racing's purported Super Bowl, known as the Breeders' Cup World Championships, racked up a .75 Nielsen television rating for its broadcast on ESPN last Oct. 27 from Monmouth Park. That's point-seven-five, representing slightly more than a million households.

Racing executives will argue that there are thousands upon thousands of racing fans uncounted by Nielsen, lounging at racetracks and offtrack betting facilities, enjoying every word of the ESPN broadcast while pumping greenbacks through the tote. And they are probably correct, so let's round up. Give 'em a big, fat Nielsen uno.

The 2007 Super Bowl telecast, on the other hand, generated a Nielsen rating of 42.6, which tiptoes perilously close to one out of every two hard-working American citizens. For marketing execs in rival sports, this is daunting. So they are resigned to their fate in lesser games of skill.

That has not stopped the occasional racetrack from trying. Churchill Downs has slapped a decal on a Nascar rocket in hopes of tapping that lode. Emerald Downs goes out of its way to embrace the Seahawks, the Sonics, and the Mariners. And for some reason there is a core of players with the NHL St. Louis Blues who never miss a chance to visit Turf Paradise when they play the Phoenix Coyotes.

"My greatest marketing achievement ever was when I got the Stanley Cup to spend a day at Belmont Park," said Allen Gutterman, Santa Anita's vice president of marketing, his tongue only partially in his cheek.

"It was right after the Rangers won it in 1994, and the reaction was seismic. That was the first time it happened in just about everyone's lifetime [54 years, in fact], and there were about 11,000 people that day, when usually there were maybe five or six. We set it up on the apron, near the winner's circle, and let people take their picture with it. The line snaked around and around."

As for Super Bowl promotions, there is not much racetracks can do, what with the NFL's iron-clad grip on rights to the broadcast and even the term "Big Game" preciously guarded. NFL attorneys have successfully pulled the rug from churches who had, in the past, staged Super Bowl parties featuring television screens larger than 55 inches. Yes, that's right. The Super Bowl is bigger than religion.

"Santa Anita tried a few things in the past," Gutterman said, "like leaving the game on monitors after the races were over. But nobody hung around. So now about the only thing we really can do is offer an earlier first post" - 11 a.m. on Sunday - "so that they can get home in time for the game. We're calling it the Big Day. I hope that doesn't get us in trouble."

After a day to recover from Super Sunday, there will come Super Tuesday, when California, New York, New Jersey, and 19 other states (plus American Samoa) will hold Presidential primaries.

There are any number of ballot measures to go along with the choices for Republican and Democratic nominees, although you have to look far and wide to find any of them that have much to do with horse racing.

California is an exception. Ballot measures 94, 95, 96, and 97 are asking voters to approve four agreements made last year between the state legislature and four of the most influential Native American tribes, regarding the expansion of their casino operations.

The Stockbridge Land Co., owner of Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park, funded the placement of these referendum measures and is backing a "no" vote, in the hope that overturning the agreements can lead to a better deal for them down the line in negotiations for a cut of Indian casino dollars.

Since horse racing troubles Indian casinos about as much as a tick bird impacts a rhino, there is no evidence this will happen. So good luck to them. If the "no's" win, another set of compacts will be negotiated. It is significant to note that Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park are not being joined by any of California's other racing associations, who figure there are better ways to do business with one of the most politically powerful forces in the state.