Updated on 05/25/2011 11:53AM

Preakness Day business a mixed bag at Pimlico


Business figures for the Preakness Stakes and its undercard on Saturday were a mixed bag, providing no clear guidance as to whether racing’s big events can help the sport emerge from a prolonged and dramatic slide.

Handle on the Preakness itself was up, while handle on the entire card was down, according to the chart of the Preakness and figures provided by Pimlico. Attendance at Pimlico on a sunny day with mildly warm temperatures was up compared to last year, while television ratings for the race were down.

The Preakness results followed by two weeks similarly mixed numbers generated by the Kentucky Derby, its undercard, and the broadcast of the first race in the Triple Crown on NBC-TV. For the Derby, attendance was a record; handle on the whole card was up slightly; handle on the Derby was down slightly; and overnight television ratings were down 7 percent.

On the national front, racing’s core economic indicator – betting on races – has been in a dramatic decline for three years. Over the last 18 months, that dip has been accompanied by a contraction in live racing days, as racetracks struggle to present full fields of competitive races to a weakened customer base. Some racetracks and racing circuits have been more greatly affected than others, with Maryland being one of the circuits where handle has dropped in line with the national trend.

The Preakness results did not present warnings for the industry, but they did not provide much encouragement either. To be sure, this year’s crop of 3-year-olds – weakened by the mysterious ailment affecting last year’s 2-year-old champion, Uncle Mo – has not generated any buzz outside the industry, but that did not affect handle on the Preakness, which had a 14-horse field with a favorite that went off at 2.30-1.

All-sources betting on the Preakness was $53,385,941, according to the chart, a figure that includes all multi-race bets linked to the race. The figure was up 1.2 percent over the 2010 race, when 12 horses competed. Handle generally increases with larger field sizes, so the betting number this year was well within expectations, if not slightly below them.

The 2011 betting figure was well under the 2009 figure, when $59 million was bet on a 13-horse field that included the eventual Horse of the Year, the filly Rachel Alexandra.

All-sources handle on the entire 13-race card was $76,376,689, according to Pimlico, down 3.6 percent compared to the all-sources handle figure of $79,248,002. The figure last year was down 8.5 percent from the 2009 figure, indicating that racing is struggling to hold on to customers who are willing to devote an entire day to betting. First post for the 13-race card was 10:47 a.m. Eastern; the Preakness went off at 6:21 p.m.; and the last race on the card had a post of 7:15, for a total racecard length of 8 ½ hours – or a race, on average, every 45 minutes.

Subtracting out the betting on the Preakness, handle on the other 12 races on the card this year was $22,990,748 compared to non-Preakness handle last year of $26,481,187, or a difference of 13.1 percent.

Pimlico reported that attendance on Saturday under generally ideal weather conditions was 107,398, the seventh-highest figure of all time and up 12.2 percent over last year’s figure of 95,760. The figure validated Pimlico’s decision to maintain a “bottomless beer mug” promotion that was first offered last year, following a ban in 2009 on bringing alcoholic beverages into the infield. In 2009, attendance plummeted 30 percent compared to the 2008 Preakness as a result of the ban.

Overnight television ratings for the portion of the broadcast from 5 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. was a 4.6 with an 11 share, identical to last year, according to Adam Freifeld, a spokesman for the network. However, the rating for the race portion of the broadcast, from 6 p.m. to 6:45 p.m., was a 6.0, down from a 6.4 last year. Share for the race portion of the broadcast was a 14, compared to a 15 last year.