NEW YORK -- The amount of money bet on horse races in New York is almost never cited as a meaningful economic indicator. If it were, politicians would be taking credit for the unexpected upturn in business at Belmont Park during the past two weeks.
Racing in New York, the business that found itself in a tailspin during the unbridled economic growth of the '80s, has had little good economic news in recent years. This is not the industry most likely to lead the local economy out of the recession.
Its immediate problems are daunting. First, the industry is regulated -- ineptly -- by the state and competes with it through the lottery and a parasitic off-track wagering system.
Second, because bettors pay taxes on both gross revenue and net income, and taxes are withheld from substantial profits on single wagers, there is less operating capital and fewer serious horseplayers.
Third, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 removed most advantages of owning horses -- meaning fewer investors and fewer horses, who run more often and draw less betting interest in races for smaller purses.
So the news that business at Belmont Park has taken off since the day after the Belmont Stakes is disarming, even to New York Racing Association officials.
On June 7, the day after A.P. Indy won the Belmont, a crowd of 20,419 showed for a program of racing that included the Mother Goose Stakes, which had no marquee 3-year-old filly this year. A year ago, only 16,784 showed up in clear, warm weather to see a much-anticipated match between the then-undefeated champion Meadow Star and Kentucky Oaks winner Lite Light.
Attendance has increased by only 4,694 during the 11-day span, but the betting handle is up by more than $3 million, with two single-day increases of over $500,000. But no one knows why.