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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.

The Belmont Stakes, by the numbers

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

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? 



Comments :

  • Gianni | May 24 2009 08:07 PM

    Brava Teresa..... Al Belmont staks vince (win) Mr Hot Stuff Ciao

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  • olivia | May 22 2009 09:10 PM

    i think the turnout will be ok. im going to it. i cant wait to see mine that bird. i think hes gonna win hands down. theere are a lot ofother good races too. i think the turnout will be ok.

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  • eric | May 21 2009 05:20 PM

    I think the spike in attendance is due to everyones desires to witness a piece of history. It's the same theory with Barry Bonds ( before steroids) chasing his homer record. Everyone wants to see it. The fact that it might be the greatest value in sports (as far as getting in to the track), makes it that much easier for casual fans.

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  • Getz | May 21 2009 04:08 PM

    Very interesting stats. At the end of the day, I guess people just love drama, and the more years that go by and the media builds it up, the more people are going to flock to Belmont in June. Is winning the triple crown any more exciting then a great rubber match between two dynamic rivals? If you're a true racing fan, probably not but it's the fringe bettors and onlookers that get the numbers way up and they want to see a new triple crown winner! I would have loved to see Curlin and Street Sense go at it in New York but SS connections didn't see the "sense" in it, so they dropped out. I believe that is why the numbers were so down when Rags To Riches won it. If SS had of been there, I suspect they would have been knocking down the doors.

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  • Teresa | May 20 2009 09:38 PM

    Thanks, folks, for checking in with your memories and theories about the crowds at Belmont, TC and otherwise. You make a good point, Mike, about the increasing rarity of the Triple Crown and the effect on attendance. I was quite struck, though, by the fact that even non-TC Belmonts seem to have gotten a whole lot more popular recently. Walt, comments like yours make all the research in the world superfluous. Thanks for sharing those impressions.

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  • Walt | May 20 2009 08:57 PM

    It is surprising to see that "The Bid's" run for the Triple Crown in 1979 drew such a small crowd given the 1983 Belmont for instance, which did not have the TC on the line draw 61,000+ as I remember. Sure, by 1979 the TC seemed "too easy" with three winners in six years (and the thought of a third consecutive year it was swept had "The Bid" won), but then as noted the 1987 Belmont drew only 65,000. Part of that also was earlier regimes of NYRA, but also the fact that until the TC became the event it is now, New York patrons cared more about older horses than three year olds. That was most evident in 1966, when the Met Mile on Memorial Day drew over 67,000, but Kauai King's attempt at the Triple Crown a few days later (when there was only a two week gap between the Preakness and Belmont) drew only 55,000 to Aqueduct (Belmont Park was closed from 1963-'67 to build the current facility after the original one was condemmed in early 1963). I remember being at Belmont for every running from 1989-2000 and 2002-'05, including the lean years when attendance on Belmont Day dropped to 37,000 in 1995. and was only 40,000 the next year because of a giveaway. NYRA then did a much better job in promoting Belmont week that in 2000, the attendance was 68,000, which was a record for a Belmont with no TC possibility, and that was exceeded a year later with a new record for a non-TC Belmont of 74,000. The drop to 46,000 two years ago I can directly attribute to all kinds of transportation problems that day (not on the LIRR) that may have cost NYRA as much as 10,000 people. While the ban on bringing in alcohol in 2005 may have caused some of the drop, but not all of it.

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  • toni tyler | May 20 2009 05:44 PM

    Nice Research. Wonder what happens with The Preakness up in the air over bankruptcy? Wonder if someone will re-surface that Pimilco Course? Wonder if some sweet-new-owner will make it wide enough for horses to not get so 'beat-up' and give each other skin/hoof damages? Would we end up with a 'Double-Crown?'

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  • Mike DelNagro | May 20 2009 02:56 PM

    That's an interesting summary of attendance at various Belmont Stakes, Teresa. Thank you for it. My theory on the pop in attendance recently is this: No Triple Crown winner between 1946 and 1973 made Secretariat's attempt quite special. But after Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed won three Triple Crowns in a span of five years, the feat was not-so-special special anymore. I remember being at Belmont Park for Spectacular Bid's Belmont and the feeling was kind of ho-hum ... We were going to have a fourth Triple Crown winner in a span of six years, so what else was new? But since Bid failed, winning a Triple Crown gradually became elusive again--just as it was going into Secretariat's attempt. And after a 19-year Triple Crown drought, the media picked up on what a rare phenomena it is, and fans turned out in droves for War Emblem, hoping to see a magical moment. Same with Funny Cide, Smarty Jones and Big Brown (who's allure was tempered slightly perhaps by all the neggie press aurrounding his connections.) The more time passes until the next Triple Crown winner, the bigger the Belmont Stakes is going to be whenever it has a horse going for the Crown. Can you imagine the size of the crowd at Belmont Park in June 2028 if we're still looking for our first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed?

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  • Greg D | May 20 2009 12:30 PM

    I agree with Rich, nice article Theresa !!! As simple as this is gonna sound, I think the weather will play the biggest part in attendance this year at the Belmont. My guess is the low being 60,000 and the high being 75,000. If RA runs she wins, but I hope they rest her.

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  • Teresa | May 20 2009 04:57 AM

    Thanks for reading, Rich, and of course you're right about the overall state of racing, particularly in terms of attendance. I'm not sure that I agree about the "chic and glamour" part--the backyard is generally pretty full for the Belmont, and as terrific as it is back there, I don't see chic and glamour! In the face of so many other discouraging statistics (to which you refer), it was nice at least to find some heartening evidence of an increase in interest in being at the track, even if it's for only one day.

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  • Rich Schrage | May 19 2009 10:46 PM

    Nice thorough article, Theresa, re: the Belmont Stakes numbers - and I respect your research, and understand your focus is the Belmont Stakes, but I must disagree with your contention (or perhaps it's musing) that the reports of racing's demise may be exaggerated. I've squirreled away (just like that animal) my notes on attendance, simulcasting revenue, industry dynamics, etc. (buried somewhere in my files), so here's my few points: * One race (Belmont Stakes) does not portend a trend, i.e., other than the excellent and apparently growing attendance in later years for the Stakes, the overall on-track attendance is low and falling. * OTB, simulcasting, online betting, etc. is so widespread (and sometimes contentious and conflicting), that a given track or organization (NYRA, Magna, Churchill, etc.) is facing financial stress (bankruptcy, reliance on realized or hoped for "slots" to complement racing, etc.) so that "attendance" (real at track or off-track) is declining or stagnant or not greatly supportive of racing. * Lastly, and sadly, my supposition (as a Sr. Citizen & fan of racing only for several years, and "still learning", but nevertheless opinionated), is that a large majority of racing fans "nowadays" are not true fans, but like the "chic and glamor and drinks (latter is Ok), and non-racing essentials" and will come to the track for maybe one big event, e.g., a vying for the Triple Crown - and then if disappointed in their expectatations, one witnesses a spectacle something like the "thousands" (?) of fans "booing" the performance of Big Brown in his flawed finish at the Belmont Stakes. OK, maybe I'm cynical, but I suspect "fanhood" in racing is declining from many perspectives. Regards.

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