05/20/2009 11:00PM

Preakness showed glass more than half-full

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NEW YORK - From the widely published pictures of an almost-empty Preakness Day infield, you might have thought that interest in one of racing's signature events had plummeted along with the national economy. Attendance was 77,850, down from 112,222 in 2008, a 30 percent decline.

The pictures didn't lie, but they told the wrong story, a footnote about beer and undergraduates that had nothing to do with the popularity of racing and wagering. Betting on the Preakness itself was up an astounding 29 percent, from $47.9 million in 2008 to $61.6 million, and the action on the rest of the card was down only 2 percent in a year when the national handle is running about 10 percent behind last year. In total, the 13-race Preakness card drew $84.3 million in commingled wagers, up from $71.1 million a year ago.

The dramatic upturn was the result of both some short-term differences and broader changes in the economics of the sport.

Obviously this year's Preakness was vastly more appealing as a sporting and wagering proposition than the 2008 edition, when Big Brown was a 1-5 favorite against an uncompetitive collection of longshots. Win, place, and show betting on the 2009 Preakness soared 61 percent, from $14.3 million to $23.0 million, for a race that offered more intrigue and wagering options than a virtual sure thing.

The other important change was the availability of the race on all the major home-betting companies. Last year, infighting among competing account-wagering companies left tens of thousands of customers without their usual betting platforms and they simply passed the race instead of running out to the nearest simulcast facility to bet on a 1-5 shot. It's impossible to calibrate the difference this made, since everyone in racing is so bizarrely stingy and secretive about releasing breakdowns of betting, but the wider access clearly made a significant difference.

Perhaps if those numbers were better known and understood, racing would embrace the massive change in its business model and its only potential for real growth: abandoning its nostalgia for a bygone era when the game was driven by robust on-site attendance, to a new world where horse racing should be booming as the only legal way to gamble over the Internet.

The falloff in attendance was entirely a function of a new policy banning infield attendees from bringing their own booze, effectively ending a tradition of infield partying by a largely collegiate crowd that saw little racing and bet virtually nothing. It's debatable how useful the annual infield party ever was in terms of creating many long-term racing fans, and it's at least worth asking whether the same goal might not be better achieved by marketing handicapping and home betting, rather than alcohol poisoning and vandalism, to the same target audience.

It is also possible that the vigorous betting on the Preakness marked the end of the fear and negativity stemming from the Eight Belles incident at the 2008 Derby - the only fatality in the history of the race and a freak accident that had nothing to do with running fillies against colts or "horses hopped up on cocaine," as a Congresswoman baselessly claimed at a subcommittee hearing last summer.

A year ago, animal activists were picketing the race, and ill-informed alarmists were lecturing the public that the sport and its participants were cruel and reckless. A year later, after some unrelated but overdue and welcome safety reforms, the public seems ready to move on - more so than the sportswriters who last week were begging Jess Jackson to avoid the "risk" of running Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness.

Thank goodness he didn't listen to them.

The argument was that if Rachel Alexandra broke down, racing would never recover and the game would somehow cease to exist. But there was no danger to Rachel Alexandra because of her sex, and no greater chance of her being involved in an accident than there is to any other horse being led to the post for any other race on any other day. Of course everyone in racing should do everything possible to diminish that chance, but falsely alleging that there was any particular risk in running Rachel Alexandra last Saturday is not only misleading, but also reinforces the false notion that the Eight Belles accident was foreseeable or preventable.

Racing will not cease to exist the next time a horse has an accident in a high-profile event. It will cease to exist if people become too intimidated to run perfectly sound horses in perfectly appropriate races.