05/23/2005 12:00AM

Record crowd and handle at Preakness


Ideal springtime weather, a well-matched 14-horse field, and the fallout from record Kentucky Derby payoffs translated into record attendance and handle numbers for Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

Attendance on Saturday under mostly sunny skies and mid-70-degree temperatures was 115,318, breaking the record of 112,668 set last year for Smarty Jones's popular win.

Betting on the Preakness this year was also a record at $60,861,090, up 3.5 percent compared to last year's record handle of $58,791,406.

The increase in betting was somewhat surprising given that last year's handle was up 47.5 percent compared to 2002 on the strength of the popularity of Smarty Jones, who was 3-5 under the weight of a considerable amount of novelty betting.

"I never thought we'd break last year's record with all the attention Smarty Jones captured," said Joe De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico, in a statement.

This year, however, the full field and lack of confidence in the 50-1 Derby winner, Giacomo, had horseplayers spreading their bankrolls. In addition, the record payoffs in the Derby had some bettors searching for longshots and consequently playing astonishing underlays - no horse in the Preakness field went off at greater than 27-1, including the speedster Going Wild, a 26-1 shot who finished 18th in the Derby and last in the Preakness, and who has now been beaten a total of 128 lengths in his last four starts.

Betting on the entire 13-race Preakness card at Pimlico was also a record at $88,083,366, up 0.25 percent compared to last year's record wagering total of $87,858,878.

Overnight television ratings for the 90-minute Preakness broadcast on NBC dipped considerably, from a 7.2 last year to a 5.9 this year, a drop of 18 percent. Each ratings point equals about 667,000 households. Share, a measure of the percentage of televisions in use tuned to the broadcast, dropped from 16 to 14.

Alana Russo, a spokeswoman for NBC Sports, said Monday that the drop was most likely attributable to the popularity of Smarty Jones last year. She noted that the rating for this year's broadcast was up compared to the 5.6 overnight rating for the 2003 Preakness, which was won by Funny Cide, and that the rating was close to the 6.2 average overnight posted by the broadcast for the five years the race has been on NBC.

The 2004 "overnight rating was the highest for the Preakness since 1990, so it may have been a bit of an aberration," Russo said. "The 5.9 rating was close to our other Preakness broadcasts, so that's probably a better indication."