ELMONT, N.Y. -- Fans have come to the Belmont Stakes prepared to see the end of a 36-year Triple Crown drought. Belmont Park officials are ready for other marks to fall -- betting records.
The potential history-making run of California Chrome will draw massive wagering receipts at the track and across the country. It could rival, even surpass, the Belmont Stakes single-day high of total money wagered -- or “handle” -- set when Smarty Jones attempted to win the Triple Crown in 2004.
The handle then was just shy of $111 million for the entire day’s races and $63 million for just the Belmont Stakes (the respective Kentucky Derby records are $182 million and $133 million).
What makes this year more special than previous Triple Crown attempts?
“You’ve got a perfect storm here,” said Mike Watchmaker, the national handicapper for Daily Racing Form. “A horse that resonates with the general public in a way we haven’t seen in years. And a compelling card, one of the greatest non-Breeders’ Cup cards ever.”
California Chrome’s backstory is one attraction.
The 3-year-old colt is the product of two first-time horse breeders who operate under the name Dumbass Partners. In 2008, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin pooled $8,000 to purchase slow filly Love the Chase. Coburn and Martin heard one groom say anybody who would pay money for the horse was “a dumbass.”
They then matched Love the Chase with 10-year-old stallion Lucky Pulpit, whose breeding rights cost some $1,500. California Chrome is now worth millions after Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes victories. That value is evidenced by the offers turned down by Coburn, who works for a company that puts magnetic strips on credit cards, and Martin, who owns a company that tests metal products.
The Belmont Stakes is the 11th of 13 races on a spectacular Saturday slate, which will up the day’s total handle, horse racing insiders say. The one-mile Metropolitan Handicap, traditionally held on Memorial Day, was moved to the Belmont undercard.
But the majority of the crowd, perhaps rivaling the 2004 attendance record of 120,139, will come to watch and wager on Chrome’s run for history at 6:52 p.m ET.
Gates open at 8:30 a.m., and manned betting windows two hours later. A standard $2 Chrome-to-win ticket will be worth more as a souvenir than to give it up and cash it in for meager winnings.
“If he wins, it will be a collector’s item, that’s for sure,” said Patrick Mahony, the senior vice president of parimutuel operations at the New York Racing Association. “And a lot of people know that and are doing that. Some, I guess, will want to sell it on eBay or something like that.”
Resellers may not profit too much if the market is flooded, though (tickets are already on eBay). Mahony said a real valuable item would be if somebody held winning tickets from all three Triple Crown races together, perhaps framed, perhaps with a signature from California Chrome jockey Victor Espinoza.
A seasoned autograph collector at Belmont Park on Friday estimated Espinoza’s autograph could multiply an item’s value by 10 times if he wins the Triple Crown.
Mahony said 17,000 betting tickets have already been requested, including one order of 7,535 of the $2 tickets. Belmont Park is prepared for an onslaught Saturday, with 1,500 electronic machines and several hundred clerks, including many brought in from other tracks such as Churchill Downs.
For the first time, all Belmont Stakes win, place or show tickets will include the horse’s name rather than just its number, according to The New York Times.
“I don’t like to predict records, but I would hope that we would threaten the on-track handle record [nearly $15 million at the 2004 Belmont and 2005 Breeders’ Cup],” Mahony said. “We’re optimistic.”
Peak betting would reverse the sport’s recent gambling interest, which has steadily declined by 33 percent over the last decade, said Daily Racing Form industry correspondent Matt Hegarty.
“Racing has lost a lot to other forms of gambling,” Hegarty said, noting the gradual erosion of horse racing’s overall fan base. “It hasn’t marketed itself well.”
Here are two notable bettors in particular who have much to gain Saturday:
Eddie Espinoza, a 72-year-old Californian, will win $1 million if Chrome prevails thanks to a Santa Anita Derby contest.
And Coburn, who in January put an undisclosed wager on his co-owned horse to win the Kentucky Derby at 200-to-1 odds. Coburn went back to that Nevada casino last week for a ceremonial cashing (he had already turned in the ticket), and William Hill sports book put $1,000 on Chrome to win the Belmont in Coburn’s name. The winnings would go to the American Cancer Society.