05/21/2012 10:26AM

Pimlico: Preakness handle increases


All-sources wagering on this year’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on Saturday was up 2.5 percent compared to betting on the race last year, according to figures printed on the official charts for the two races.

Including multi-race bets that ended in the Preakness, commingled handle for this year’s race, which had an 11-horse field, was $55,935,707, compared to total commingled betting of $53,385,941 on the 2011 race, which had a full field of 14 horses.

Considering that handle for a race is closely correlated with field size, the increase in handle this year compared to last year is an encouraging sign for an industry that continues to struggle to find its footing in the face of a brutal contraction starting with the onset of the recession in 2008. Total handle on the entire Pimlico card was also up, from $76.4 million last year to $80.5 million this year, according to the charts, although a small sliver of that increase, approximately $250,000, was due to the addition of an Arabian race to the card this year.

More significantly, the victory by I’ll Have Another, the Kentucky Derby winner, virtually guarantees that handle and attendance at New York’s Belmont Stakes in three weeks will exceed last year’s figures as long as the horse runs. I’ll Have Another is the first horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown since 2008, and in any recent year in which a Triple Crown is on the line, attendance and handle at the Belmont is at least double the figure for a non-Triple Crown year.

In Baltimore on Saturday, Pimlico announced that attendance was a record 121,309, just narrowly besting the previous mark of 121,263, announced in 2005. Attendance at Pimlico is largely dependent on weather, alcohol policies, and infield entertainment, and this year, the weather was ideal, infield patrons were able to buy bottomless beers mugs for $20, and Maroon 5, a pop group with a large following, headlined the six live musical acts.

The overnight rating and share for the race portion of a live broadcast on NBC television did not fare as well, coming in at 5.5/13, down from 6.0/14 last year, according to Adam Freifeld, a spokesperson for the network. Freifeld said that the rating and share may have been negatively impacted by mild, sunny weather from the Midwest to the Northeast, but he also cautioned that overnight ratings for the Derby broadcast ended up lower than the national rating released the next day. The overnight rating is a compilation of large markets, whereas the national rating measures all markets.

Betting on the Derby and its undercard this year was also up this year, although the increases at Churchill dwarfed the jumps posted at Pimlico. Derby handle was up 18.8 percent, and handle on the entire 13-race card at Churchill was up 13.2 percent. Nationwide, handle on U.S. horse races has been up in three of the last five months, according to figures compiled by Equibase, but wagering figures plunged in April, introducing questions about whether the recent jumps could be sustained.

While betting on the Preakness has now increased three straight years, the $55.9 million betting figure this year is still well below the record Preakness handle of $59 million, set in 2009, when the filly Rachel Alexandra took the race. This year’s Preakness included the first two finishers in the Kentucky Derby for the first time since 2007, and they finished Saturday the same way they finished at Churchill two weeks earlier, I’ll Have Another over Bodemeister.

Although I’ll Have Another won the Derby handily, many bettors considered Bodemeister the better horse for the shorter Preakness distance and because there appeared to be fewer horses that could press him on the front end. By the time wagering closed, Bodemeister was the 1.70-1 favorite, compared to 3.20-to-1 odds on I’ll Have Another. In the last two cycles, when robotic wagering programs typically send their bets into the pools, another $700,000 was bet on Bodemeister to win, while I’ll Have Another took only $50,000 in additional win bets, a 14-1 ratio for late money. Bodemeister was also the target for a surge of late win bets in the Derby.