Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.
Based on the attendance for the Belmont Stakes, the reports of racing’s demise may well be exaggerated.
NYRA president Charles Hayward was on record as rooting for Mine That Bird in the Preakness, hoping to bring a Triple Crown-expectant crowd out to Belmont on the first Saturday in June. A quick look at the attendance for possible Triple Crown winners in this decade yields encouraging numbers, with perhaps surprising ones for the 70’s and 80’s.
Below is a list of Belmont Stakes attendance figures for the years since 1970 when a Triple Crown was on the line, with the name of the horse going for the glory:
Canonero II, 1971: 81,036
Secretariat, 1973: 69,138
Seattle Slew, 1977: 70,229
Affirmed, 1978: 65,147
Spectacular Bid, 1979: 59,073
Average attendance: 68, 924
Pleasant Colony, 1981: 61,105
Alysheba, 1987: 64,772
Sunday Silence, 1989: 64,959
Average attendance: 63, 612
Silver Charm, 1997: 70,682
Real Quiet, 1998: 80,162
Charismatic, 1999: 85,818
Average attendance: 78,887
War Emblem, 2002: 103,222
Funny Cide, 2003: 101,864
Smarty Jones, 2004: 120,319
Big Brown, 2008: 94,476
Average attendance: 104,970
Average attendance, 1990 – 1999: 55,463
Average attendance, 2000 – 2008: 81,312
Since 2000, there’s been an approximately 25% increase in the average number of people showing up in the hope of seeing a Triple Crown winner. The numbers for the 70’s are almost shockingly low, and the pre-2000 numbers are staggering when considered in the context of attendance for races without a horse going for the Triple Crown.
In 2005, Afleet Alex brought out 62,274, only 3,000 fewer than Affirmed; while Rags to Riches’s attendance seems a puzzlingly low 46,870, it’s not so bad when one considers that 59,000 came out for the Spectacular Bid.
Jazil, with only a maiden win under his belt, won the 2006 Belmont in front of 61,000, without the Derby or Preakness winner in the field. By contrast, the 1993 Belmont, which featured Derby winner Sea Hero and Preakness winner Prairie Bayou, enticed only 45,037.
How does one account for the significant jump in attendance at the turn of the last century? The ubiquity of off-track betting demonstrates that it’s got nothing to do with wagering. Even taking into account the significant number of variables at play, the overall rise in attendance, with or without a Triple Crown on the line, would seem to indicate that the Belmont Stakes is an event in the public consciousness, an event that people want to attend.
We know that Mine That Bird is coming (at least as this point); we don’t know whether the two other stars of this Triple Crown season, Rachel Alexandra and/or Calvin Borel, will be there. Immediately following the Preakness, the speculation began: OK, no Triple Crown this year. Who's the biggest draw: Mine That Bird? Rachel Alexandra? Calvin Borel?
Chances are that we're not looking at six-figure attendance, given Mine That Bird's loss in the Preakness, but recent form indicates that attendance will nonetheless be healthy. Any guesses at the numbers we might see come June 6th?