05/16/2004 11:00PM

Preakness draws highest TV ratings since 1990

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The popularity of potential Triple Crown horses has been difficult to measure in recent years. While winners of both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes have generated an unmistakable but indefinable "buzz" over the past decade, few have produced numbers that objectively validate their popularity.

Not so with Smarty Jones, runaway winner of Saturday's Preakness Stakes. Television ratings for NBC-TV's broadcast of the Preakness were the highest since 1990, and up 29 percent over last year, when the Preakness was won by the popular Funny Cide. At Pimlico itself, all-time handle and attendance records were shattered by wide margins Saturday.

Officials at the New York Racing Association's Belmont Park, where the third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, will be run on June 5, are planning for what Bill Nader, the track's senior vice president, has predicted will be "the biggest day in NYRA's history." The undefeated Smarty Jones not only will be going for the Triple Crown that day, but also for the title of North American racing's all-time leading earner. A Triple Crown sweep would reward Smarty Jones with a $5 million bonus, putting his career earnings at $13 million, $3 million richer than the next in line, Cigar.

"I didn't think it could get any better than Funny Cide last year, as far as a compelling story that the country really rallied around," Nader said Monday. "But along comes Smarty Jones."

On the popular auction website eBay, a search for listings that included the words "Smarty Jones" on Monday turned up 970 items. A $2 win ticket on Smarty Jones for the Derby, which would have returned $10.20 if cashed, had been bid up in one auction to $152.50.

Helped by good weather this year compared to last year, Pimlico officials said that attendance on Saturday was 112,668, up 7.9 percent over the record in 2001 and up 12.3 percent over last year's figure, when the weather at Pimlico was wet and rainy.

Betting on the Preakness itself was $58,791,406, up 39 percent over the record in 2002 and 47.5 percent over last year's figure. Smarty Jones was a 3-5 favorite on Saturday, and, typically, the presence of a short-priced favorite, especially one below odds-on, results in depressed handle figures. Last year, betting on the Preakness, when Funny Cide was a 1.90-1 favorite on a muddy track, was down 10 percent from the record set a year earlier.

Betting on the entire 13-race Pimlico card this year was $85,120,667, up 31.9 percent over the 2002 record and 43.3 percent over last year's all-sources handle. The records were established despite a controversial decision by Pimlico's majority owner, Magna Entertainment Corp., to withdraw the Pimlico signal from some of the most popular online wagering companies in the United States.

The television figures tell a more complete story about Smarty Jones. Normally, a horse's popularity is not firmly established until a horse wins the Preakness to set up a Triple Crown bid. Last year, for example, overnight television ratings for Funny Cide's win in the Preakness were 13.2 percent lower than those for the Preakness broadcast in 2002.

The overnight rating this year was a 7.2 with a 16 share, the highest since 1990 - when Summer Squall's win generated a 7.8 overnight rating with a 20 share - and 29 percent higher than Funny Cide's win. In addition, the 7.2 rating was only 1.1 points lower than this year's Kentucky Derby rating. The fall-off is generally far more dramatic between the two races; last year, for example, the overnight rating in the Derby was a 7.7, with a 2.1-point drop-off in the Preakness.

According to NBC, the race portion of this year's broadcast, from 5:45 to 6:45 p.m., had an overnight rating of 9.2 with a 20 share, up 61 percent compared to last year. Each rating point represents approximately 740,000 households. Share represents the percentage of televisions in use that are tuned to the broadcast.

"It's quite clear that the incredible story of Funny Cide last year introduced horse racing to a number of new fans, and we think the ratings this year show that," said Kathy Connors, a spokeswoman for NBC Sports.

With Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid on the line, the Belmont rating last year exceeded that of the Kentucky Derby, drawing a final rating of 10.4 with a 24 share. Nader said that he believes the Belmont rating this year will easily break that mark.

The admissions gates on Belmont Day will open at 8:30 a.m., Nader said. Nearly all of Belmont's reserved seats have already been sold, but $2 general admissions and $5 clubhouse admissions will be unlimited, Nader said. The record for a Belmont Stakes attendance was set in 2002 for War Emblem's unsuccessful Triple Crown bid, when 103,222 showed up at Belmont Park.

Because of Smarty Jones's popularity in Pennsylvania, where he was born, raised, and is based, Belmont officials have arranged with Amtrak to provide additional trains on June 5 from Philadelphia to New York. In addition, the Long Island Rail Road will schedule additional trains to Belmont Park from Penn Station in Manhattan, Nader said.

The Belmont card will start at noon. A $1 million guaranteed pick four and a $1 million guaranteed pick six will be offered on the card. All of the races in the bets will be graded stakes.