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Exaggerator Tripped Up the Crown: Is Belmont the Irrelevant Stakes?

1 Jun, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Does the fact that Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist came in as an also-ran at the Preakness mean Belmont has become the Irrelevant Stakes?

How to put this nicely? Yes. But also no. To paraphrase the Phatzradio blog, Exaggerator’s victory automatically means less interest in the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of Thoroughbred horse-racing’s Triple Crown. But come Saturday, June 11, the stands will still be full and the betting will still be hot and heavy.

Certainly, TV viewership will drop off precipitously. According to an article in the USA TODAY’s Courier Journal, AwfulAnnouncing.com, which studies TV viewership and trends, found that Belmont Stakes ratings since 2000 have been on average nearly three times as high as when the Kentucky Derby winner has a potential Triple Crown on the line. The 10 races when the sweep wasn’t a factor drew an average of 6.15 million viewers. But the five that involved a Triple Crown bid registered 16.74 million viewers. (Count on there to be fewer watch parties this year as well.)

It’s hard to say whether or not the lack of Triple Crown potential will mean fewer spectators. It's always the race that has the most to lose, given the fact that its cache each year depends upon the results of the Preakness. Realistically, the prestige factor of being at the race will drive many (including the hat and fashion crowd) through the gates of Belmont Park – just as it does the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Andy Serling, a TV analyst and handicapper for the New York Racing Association and FOX Sports1, is one of many industry experts who watch the Belmont Stakes intently. But, he told e-zine Covers, not all those who come to see (and be seen) will visit the windows.

“Events like the Belmont have a built-in crowd. People come to be part of the event. While it’s great, do they really bet?” asks Serling.

In a typical year, the attendance at the Belmont Stakes is among American thoroughbred racing’s top attended events. And normally, when there’s a Triple Crown at stake, attendance would rise exponentially. But spectator numbers are no longer a factor because Belmont Park puts an attendance cap of 90,000 on the race. That was a new addition in 2015, and was demanded by the New York Racing Association after the previous year, when California Chrome failed in his bid for Triple Crown glory. That year saw a crowd of 102,199 and resulted in problems with lines, crowding, inadequate food and beverage supplies and transportation snafus. (A record 120,139 showed up in 2004, when Smarty Jones lost his bid.)

Of course, attendance numbers aren’t everything. Preakness officials told media outlets there was an all-time high crowd of 135,256 for the 2016 event – but this claim was quickly disputed in social media by both pundits and attendees who stated that race officials might have been counting advance ticket sales that didn’t pan out because of cold temperatures and non-stop rain.

But make no mistake, plenty of those in the crowd that attends the Belmont still pay their money and make their choices. According to New Jersey, the 90,000 present in 2015 resulted in $6.6 million being wagered at the racetrack, while off-track betting totaled $75 million. Overall, it was the second-highest day of wagering in the NYRA’s history, with a reported $134.8 million wagered on the 13-race Belmont Park card.

Predictably, interest in betting falls off dramatically when there isn’t a Triple Crown at stake, and nowhere is that studied more closely than in Las Vegas. According to Covers, Jason Simbal, vice president of race and sports for CG Technology, had predicted a draw of between $6 and 6.5 million worth of wagering on the Belmont in Nevada. CG Technology estimated its numerous race books would account for 10 to 15 percent of that statewide handle.

“We get less than half that number when there’s no Triple Crown attempt,” he told Covers.

The early odds for the Belmont were Exaggerator (7-4), Nyquist (2-1) and Suddenbreakingnews (8-1). Other odds can be found here.

In the meantime, a few other tidbits and trivia points. The official drink of the race is the Belmont Jewel (a recipe can be found here) and the official song – well, what year is it? According to Wikipedia, until 1996, the post parade song was “The Sidewalks of New York.” From 1997 to 2009, the song was changed to a recording by Frank Sinatra of “New York, New York.” In 2010, the song was changed to Jay-Z's “Empire State of Mind” before reverting to "New York, New York" from 2011 through the present.

Wikipedia also notes there’s plenty of snark to go around when it comes to discussions of the official cocktail: “Along with the change of song in 1997, the official drink was also changed, from the White Carnation to the Belmont Breeze. The New York Times reviewed both cocktails unfavorably, calling the Belmont Breeze “a significant improvement over the nigh undrinkable White Carnation" despite the fact that it "tastes like a refined trashcan punch.” In 2011, the Belmont Breeze was again changed to the current official drink known as the Belmont Jewel.”

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