10/31/2003 12:00AM

Reason for big declines murky

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MIAMI - The 128-day Calder meeting ended Oct. 24, and the final numbers showed distressing declines not only in ontrack attendance and handle but in both the intertrack and interstate simulcast numbers as well. Ontrack attendance and handle were down 4 percent and 6 percent, respectively, from the corresponding dates in 2002, while total ITW and ISW handle was off more than 4.5 percent each.

Business began to fall off drastically during the middle of the summer and never recovered, despite the success of special-event days such as the Summit of Speed and Festival of the Sun. The declines have track president Ken Dunn scratching his head, searching for both answers and solutions.

"This was the oddest occurrence I've experienced at any meet I've ever worked," Dunn said. "For the first three months we were almost dead even with last year. Then business declined so suddenly and so dramatically it was like someone turned the faucet off on August 1."

Dunn said the declines may have been caused by a combination of factors.

"We saw no ill effects from the no-smoking legislation in July, and then the bottom fell out, so whether or not it's a real factor remains a question," said Dunn. "I'm not sure how much the new law that lifted the caps on the pot sizes at nearby poker rooms impacted us here, but it's also something different. There has also been a movement lately towards online and telephone wagering, which is illegal in Florida, but still goes on."

The fact both the Summit of Speed and Festival of the Sun thrived gives Dunn hope for the future.

"I think the success of those two days and the Baby Day, which we inaugurated in late August, proves that if you've got a good event you can still do good business in this marketplace," said Dunn. "I'm also enough of an optimist to believe that whatever fans Thoroughbred racing loses because of a smoking ban or convenience wagering we'll eventually get back because gambling on racing is a social endeavor and those people will return for the live experience."

Among the solutions Dunn will be looking at are a change in post time, promotions for senior citizens, and a return to a 3 p.m. post on Friday.

Bill White won his seventh consecutive Calder training title, easily outdistancing Eddie Plesa Jr. and Henry Collazo. Manoel Cruz won his first Calder jockey title, outlasting apprentice Eddie Castro, 174-161.

Bernie Oxenberg dead at 83

Bernie Oxenberg, who with his wife, Beatrice, ranks among the leading owner-breeders in Calder history, died Thursday evening following a short illness. He was 83.

Among the horses the Oxenbergs owned and bred is the 8-year-old Best of the Rest, who surpassed the $1 million mark in earnings earlier this season with his victory in the inaugural Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park.

Oxenberg campaigned horses at Calder for three decades with trainers Stanley Hough, Al Scotti, Happy Alter, and Eddie Plesa Jr.

Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Beth David Memorial Gardens, 3201 NW 72nd Ave., Hollywood, Fla.