09/08/2004 11:00PM

Some numbers you can't count on


NEW YORK - Upstate editorialists and politicians have spent the last few days speculating about why attendance was down 8 percent at the 36-day Saratoga meeting that ended Monday. New York State's attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, whose office absurdly took credit for business gains early in the meet, has yet to claim similar responsibility for the closing-week declines, but nearly every other possible culprit is being analyzed and debated.

It's as if handicappers were spending their time scrutinizing why this year's Derby winner had 11 letters in his name while last year's had only nine. Attendance has become a misleading and largely irrelevant measuring stick for racing, and nowhere more so than at Saratoga, the sport's premier race meet.

Paying attention to attendance figures at Saratoga would lead one to some dangerously crazy ideas about what attracts people to the racetrack. It would make you think that the most compelling Travers Stakes ever run was the 2003 edition won by Ten Most Wanted, which attracted the biggest Travers turnout ever, bigger than Jaipur-Ridan or Affirmed-Alydar.

Going by attendance alone, the lesson would seem to be that the recipe for Travers success is to have your two marquee attractions, Funny Cide and Empire Maker, scratch out of the lineup. In fact, the 2003 Travers drew a record crowd simply because it was the first pleasant day after a week of brutally hot weather. Sometimes climate conquers all.

Did you also know that the most attractive field of grass horses assembled in American racing this year was the group of New York-breds who contested the West Point Handicap at Saratoga this past Aug. 15? That's what the announced attendance of 61,103 might lead you to believe.

Look at the handle instead. That supposed throng - routinely referred to in news coverage as a "crowd" or "turnout" of more than 60,000 - combined to produce an ontrack handle of $3.52 million, which works out to a ridiculously low per-capita of $57.60 for the 10-race card, or $5.76 a race. The per-capita for the previous two cards had been $155 on Friday and $131 on Saturday, when a mere 33,808 bet more than $4.4 million.

Was this Sunday crowd, nearly twice as large but betting almost $1 million less, a sudden outpouring of bright-eyed new racing fans, swayed by Seabiscuit and Smarty Jones to make a maiden visit to a racecourse, betting only pennies but beginning a lifelong love affair with the game? It's a sweet thought, but this was simply a case of merchandising. The West Point card was really the Saratoga Umbrella Giveaway card, and it is likely that fully half of that 61,103 attendance figure represented nothing more than local entrepreneurs repeatedly spinning their way through the turnstiles, paying $3 for each lovely umbrella in hopes of a $5 to $15 resale on eBay or at local flea markets. Still, attendance figures pretend that these mercenary spins are actually individual attendees and that the resulting bogus number is a meaningful sign of the health of the game.

In a more honest world, the New York Racing Association would simply buy these trinkets, brand them, and resell them at a markup directly to the peddlers without the nuisance and deceit of marching them through the turnstiles and pretending that they are attending and betting on the races - but imagine what that would do to the daily year-on-year attendance comparisons that are trumpeted in every local newspaper and evening news telecast. Spitzer might launch an investigation into the alarming dropoff in public interest on statebred grass races.

The obsession with attendance is more than a silly deception. It encourages tracks to concoct similar schemes to pump up their gate numbers, distracting focus and resources from meaningful improvements that might someday have a legitimate effect on true interest and participation. NYRA would be better served in the long run by offering $100 incentives to 1,000 new telephone-account customers than by selling $100,000 worth of umbrellas to local scavengers, but the resulting negative effect on the phony attendance numbers would be interpreted as further signs of trouble in the sport.

The truth is that more people are watching more horse races and betting more money on them than at any time in American history - thanks not to umbrella giveaways, but to simulcasting, offtrack betting, in-home telecasts, and exotic and account wagering. Yet the story being told to the public each year, based on attendance, is that this is a dying sport in which the public has declining interest. In fact, people bet virtually the same robust amount on Saratoga races this year as last, but fewer did it at the track, probably mostly because of the way the calendar broke, with the last six days being run in September.

Of course, if Spitzer still wants to take responsibility, why argue with him?