Updated on 09/17/2011 10:44AM

Racing could build on high ratings


NEW YORK - More people tuned in to the final hour of the Belmont Stakes telecast June 7 than to "Everybody Loves Raymond," "CSI," or any other blockbuster that week. Believe it or not, that hour of horse racing was the No. 1 show on network television during the first seven days of June. There may yet be hope for the republic if more Americans care to watch a Triple Crown bid than Barbara Walters's exclusive interview with Hillary Clinton on "20/20."

The question now is what, if anything, racing can do to build on and benefit from that exposure.

It would be a mistake for racing to pat itself on the back and assume that the interest in this Belmont reflects a successful industry effort to promote the sport. Ratings for the Derby and Preakness were down nearly 10 percent this year, and the Belmont would have followed suit had anyone but Funny Cide won the Preakness. It could easily be another decade before a similarly compelling storyline comes along.

In the meantime, a couple of Empire Maker-Funny Cide rematches in the Travers and Breeders' Cup should attract higher-than-usual interest and ratings, though nothing like the Belmont. That's at least two more opportunities for racing not only to attract but also to educate a captive audience.

The modern history of marketing racing boils down to an attempt to convert big-event attendees and viewers into more regular followers. The theory has always been that if you can get people out to the track just once, the game is so good that they will return. Unfortunately, the theory remains unproven. Few of the extra 90,000 bodies who attended this Belmont will be back before its 136th running.

No one seems to have an answer for getting them back sooner. When I worked at Belmont in 1995, we tried giving every Belmont Stakes attendee a coupon good for free admission any other Saturday of the meeting. Half of the coupons ended up on the floor, the other half in the clutches of a handful of wily regulars who now had free admission for the rest of the year (and a tidy concession selling the coupons for 50 cents apiece).

It proved slightly more successful when we handed out sign-up bonuses the following year encouraging patrons to open telephone-betting accounts. It seemed to be news to the once-a-year crowd that you could watch and bet races from your living room the other 51 weeks a year. More than 100 new accounts were opened that day.

Similarly, you have to think that some of the 24 million people who watched the Belmont on NBC might be candidates for betting as well as watching racing from their homes, but good luck getting that message out. Network television is so squeamish about appearing to promote gambling that it won't take Las Vegas tourism ads during the Super Bowl. Don't hold your breath for any exhortations to sign up for TVG or Youbet during the next commercial break.

Still, it would be nice if these telecasts even occasionally reported the realities of the racing industry: that 85 percent of business now comes through simulcast and offtrack betting that is available to most of the nation. Instead, NBC tried to steer viewers to its betless Web site by repeatedly posting the results of an online poll in which 74 percent of respondents "picked" Funny Cide to win the race. Who cares?

The NTRA, invisible during this Triple Crown, could also do a better job of informing the major media that racing is not a desperate, failing industry ready to post "Going Out of Business" signs if someone, anyone, does not win the Triple Crown soon. Instead, NBC's Bob Costas told America that racing "sorely" needed Funny Cide to win and Sports Illustrated banged the same drum three times, including a headline that a Crown was "desperately needed." Neither said why because there is no why; the premise is nonsense.

It also would be nice if the 24 million television viewers were given some sense that the Triple Crown is not the end of racing for the next 11 months. Having both the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup on NBC was supposed to create some continuity and cross-promotion between these events, but the Belmont was presented in a vacuum.

It would have taken just one fewer posting of the cybercappers' poll to inform viewers that Empire Maker and Funny Cide might eventually meet in the Breeders' Cup Classic, facing not only each other but the top older horses - a bunch of whom, including defending Classic winner Volponi, would be running the following Saturday in the Brooklyn or Stephen Foster.

Fat chance. Those races are on CBS.