Low attendance ruins Belmont's allure


Does the New York Racing Association deserve to hold the Breeders' Cup?

That was the question many writers who covered the event were asking last week. Even though the facilities for the animals are excellent, the atmosphere for at least some humans is depressing.

Low attendance at the Belmont track and lack of attention paid to racing's fall championship series by the New York media were among reasons cited by racing reporters for low morale.

Many of them feel Churchill Downs in Kentucky and the Southern California and Florida tracks, where the Breeders' Cup is more of an event and there is an atmosphere of excitement, are far better locations.

On Friday, for a 10-race live card featuring three stakes and seven allowance races, the live crowd at Belmont Park amounted to 8,600 fans.

On the day before the $10 million series of races, the New York Times relegated its two Breeders' Cup stories to Page 8 in an eight-page sports section.

Yesterday's attendance was 37,246, the lowest in Breeders' Cup history and about 14,000 fewer fans than 1990, when Belmont last held the event.

Churchill Downs holds the live attendance record, attracting 71,671 fans last year. The previous low was at Aqueduct, Belmont's sister track, which drew 42,568 people in 1985.

"On any day, the stands look like they're filled by people on a badly advertised cruise for senior citizens," said John Harrell of the Louisville Courier-Journal, who added that the college football game between Hofstra and Buffalo on Long Island "will get more play in the local media than the Breeders' Cup. It's too sad."

Even NYRA president Kenny Noe, at the post-draw breakfast, said, "We hope we can drag 15,000 to 20,000 people off the streets to see these races."

It might have been Noe's attempt at humor, NYRA officials were not expecting a big turnout -- even before the rain.

NYRA media relations director Glen Mathes said part of the reason for the low attendance is the approximately 20,000 telephone betting accounts that have been opened in New York, which keep many people at home, and because on Breeders' Cup day The Meadowlands was offering free admission, free programs and a free $2 bet.

Some racing aficionados say the problem is indicative of racing's difficulties in general, but that as long as the handle is healthy, the sport is healthy.

Live attendance, they say, means little in the simulcast era.

"I don't know why they continue to hold the Breeders' Cup in New York," said David Heckerman, senior writer for the Blood-Horse magazine in Lexington, Ky. "The one thing all the writers will report is that no one showed up to watch the races."

Lasix gains acceptance

The last time the Breeders' Cup was held at Belmont Park, in 1990, none of the 83 runners raced on Lasix. The anti-bleeding medication was banned at the New York tracks until two months ago.

But yesterday, 47 horses, or more than half of the 81 starters, raced on Lasix.

Even the Europeans, who once nicknamed the series the "Bleeders' Cup," seem to be softening their Lasix stance.

Last year, four of the Euro-runners raced on Lasix in Kentucky. This year, three of the 17 starters from Europe -- Hernando and Tamure in the Turf and Halling in the Classic -- were on Lasix.

Even though it's a small percentage, Jim Crispe of the International Racing Bureau said there is "a little loosening up in attitudes toward Lasix, even though in Britain the Jockey Club definitely dissuades it."

The big question, especially for breeders, is: Does it do any long-term harm?

"Using Lasix is certainly unnatural," Crispe said. "But then again, any horse that's good enough to make it to the Breeders' Cup is probably going to make a good sire or broodmare.

"Still, there's this lingering question: Will these horses' progeny have a propensity to bleed and will we, by the next century, have produced a whole thoroughbred population of junkies? Will they need to be pumped up on all sorts of stuff to run?"

Million winners in N.Y.

Two Maryland Million winners, Brilliant Patriot in the Classic and Churchbell Chimes in the Distaff, were at Belmont Park on Friday to run in rich allowance races. Each finished a close third.

Brilliant Patriot held the lead until the final furlong at 1 1/16 miles. He was passed by Grade I winner Wekiva Springs and stakes-placed Golden Larch about 40 yards from the wire.

Earlier on the card, Churchbell Chimes lost a three-horse photo-finish by a head and a neck to a stakes-placed filly and mare, Seeking the Circle and Goldarama.

Maryland-bred loyalty

Maryland equine photographer Lydia Williams wants a bumper sticker that reads: "I Love All Maryland-breds."

When the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association printed and asked her to distribute "I Love Md. Bred Cigar" car stickers at the Breeders' Cup, Williams thought it was a little unfair to the other three Maryland-breds -- Concern, Awad and Goldminer's Dream -- that were expected to compete.

She changed the sticker on her car to include Concern and Awad, but felt badly that Goldminer's Dream's name was too long to add to the list. Her worries were short-lived. The horse was bumped from the Sprint and, instead, will run next Sunday at Laurel Park.

Bargain sprinters

They might have run for a $1 million purse, but two entrants in yesterday's Breeders' Cup Sprint were inexpensive yearling buys.

Not Surprising, who finished fourth, cost $7,200 at the Florida sales, and Da Hoss, who finished last in the 13-horse field, was purchased for $6,000 in Kentucky. Together they have earned more than $1 million.

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