05/19/2009 12:00AM

Preakness handle jumps, as do TV ratings

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Justin N. Lane
ZZ Top performed in a sparsely populated Pimlico infield on Preakness Day.

A large, competitive field and the drama surrounding the entry of Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on Saturday combined to restore wagering figures on the race to near all-time highs, according to handle numbers released by the track.

The wagering figures were uniformly positive for a race that suffered dramatic declines last year because of the presence of an overwhelming favorite, Big Brown, and limited availability of the Pimlico signal on account-wagering sites. Television ratings for the race were also significantly higher than last year, in a testament to the drawing power of the Derby winner, the gelding Mine That Bird, and his matchup against the filly Rachel Alexandra, the runaway winner of the Kentucky Oaks.

The good news had one glaring exception: attendance fell off by more than 34,000 people to 77,850, a drop of 30.6 percent, almost certainly because of a new policy that prohibited customers from bringing in any beverages, including alcohol. As a result of the drop-off, Pimlico suffered perhaps a $1.5 million hit on its admissions revenue for the day. The track's infield, normally packed with beer-guzzling party-goers, appeared to be largely empty.

Total wagering on the Preakness itself was $59,726,342, according to Pimlico, a 30 percent gain from the $45,689,562 wagered on the race last year and the second-highest of all time. This year's handle figure was also a 4.7 percent gain from the number posted in 2007, when Street Sense was the 6-5 favorite. In Saturday's race, Rachel Alexandra was the 9-5 favorite among 13 horses.

The $14-million jump in wagering was fueled by the large, competitive field and the widespread availability of the Pimlico signal among major account-wagering companies. Last year, the race was unavailable through the two largest account-wagering companies, TVG and Youbet.com.

Total wagering on the entire 13-race card Saturday was $86,684,470, a 21 percent jump over the $71,474,842 wagered on last year's 13-race card. The whole-card figure was also a 2.3 percent gain over the 2007 whole-card figure of $84,771,557, a somewhat encouraging sign in an industry that is suffering widespread handle declines because of the contraction in consumer spending accompanying the recession.

The overnight television rating for NBC's broadcast from 5 to 6:45 p.m. Eastern was a 6.3, up 34 percent compared to the overnight rating of 4.7 last year, according to NBC. Share, a measure of the percentage of televisions in use that watched the program, was up 25 percent, from a 12 last year to a 15, according to the network.

The race portion of the broadcast, from 6 to 6:45 p.m., received a 7.9 overnight rating and an 18 share, well over the 6.2 rating and 14 share posted last year, according to NBC. It was the highest rating for the race portion of the broadcast since 2004, when Smarty Jones was the favorite.

Tom Chuckas, the president of Pimlico, said the wagering figures for the race exceeded expectations. Track officials had prepared for a large drop-off in attendance, Chuckas said, and the extreme decline did not convince officials to lift the ban on beverages, which was put in place this year because of concern that the atmosphere in the infield had become too dangerous.

"Tradition is a difficult thing to change," Chuckas said. "People are set in their ways. But they will change. In the short term, we took a hit. But we think that number will climb back up in the long term. It's going to take a few years, though."

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the amount wagered on the Preakness. The $59,726,342 bet on Saturday's Preakness Stakes was the second-highest amount ever, not the fifth-highest.