05/19/2008 12:00AM

Preakness handle drops 19.9 percent


All-sources wagering on the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland on Saturday declined 19.9 percent compared with 2007, in large part because of the presence of 1-5 favorite Big Brown in the 12-horse field.

The precipitous decline, from $57,053,079 last year to $45,689,562 this year, contributed to a stark decline in all-sources handle for the entire card. Not including separate-pool wagering or handle on incoming simulcasts, total commingled betting on the 13-race Saturday program declined 15.7 percent, from $84,771,557 last year to $71,474,842.

Odds-on horses such as Big Brown are termed "prohibitive" favorites because of the public's reluctance to make large wagers on races in which one horse appears to dominate the field. That dynamic was almost certainly the largest factor contributing to the huge declines.

The last time a horse went off at similar odds in the Preakness was 2000, when Fusaichi Pegasus lost at 1-5. In that year, handle on the Preakness declined 13 percent compared with the year prior.

Last year, the favorite in the Preakness was Street Sense, at 6-5 in a nine-horse field. The race was won by Curlin, the eventual Horse of the Year.

Horse racing has been conducted under a microscope for the past two weeks because of the breakdown of the filly Eight Belles shortly after she finished second in the Kentucky Derby, the first race in the Triple Crown series. The public's reaction to the breakdown may have had a small impact on wagering figures.

The Preakness was available at nearly every simulcasting site in the country. However, the race and the rest of the card from Pimlico were blacked out on the two largest account-wagering platforms in the country, Youbet.com and TVG, although the blackout was also in effect last year. Both Youbet.com and TVG ran promotions on Saturday urging customers to wager on races from tracks other than Pimlico.

Despite nearly ideal weather - clear skies and mild temperatures - attendance on Saturday was reported as 112,222, a decline of 7.5 percent compared with 2007's crowd. Last year, attendance was reported as a record 121,263, the fourth straight year in which a record was set.

The general public's uneasiness with horse racing may also have been reflected in the overnight ratings for the Preakness broadcast. The rating was down 6 percent to a 5.1 rating and a 12 share. Last year, the overnight rating for the entire broadcast was a 5.4 with a 14 share.

NBC-TV, which broadcast the Preakness live, preceded its regular coverage of the race with a half-hour program focusing on health and safety issues in horse racing. The program included a roundtable discussion on Eight Belles's death.

The acid test for horse racing's public perception will likely be wagering, attendance, and ratings results for the Belmont Stakes in three weeks, where Big Brown will almost certainly be a strong favorite to win the first Triple Crown in 30 years. In past years, Triple Crown possibilities have generated huge returns for Belmont Park and the sport, but those returns have proven to be fleeting.