While horse racing may bring up visions of gamblers waving around their betting slips at the track, the New York Racing Association is seeing higher interest from the general public, thanks to online sports betting.

“Racing has evolved to the point where in-person attendance is not necessarily the most effective barometer of the sport's popularity. Wagering handle is the best measure of overall fan engagement,” said Pat McKenna NYRA’s vice president for communications.

Americans bet $12.2 billion on thoroughbred horse racing during the 2021 season, according to Equibase. It marked an 11.9 percent increase over 2020's disrupted season and the highest amount since 2009.

“There's a number of different ways to play the races, and you need absolutely no expertise whatsoever to pick a color,” McKenna said. “Pick a jockey. Pick a horse. It can be as simple as you want to make it.”

Thirty-one states currently take legal wagers on sports betting, with other states considering legislation. Morning Consult reported that the number of U.S. adults 21 and older who said they bet on sports increased 80 percent throughout 2021. Adults under the age of 44 were more likely to bet on sports than their older peers, a trend McKenna has noticed at the tracks.

“You'll see here today that young people are certainly filling up racetracks watching racing,” he said.

New York’s summer race season began in Belmont Park in Elmont, Queens and will continue there through July 10. After it will head upstate to the Saratoga Race Course until September. Final Furlong Racing Stable managing partner Vince Roth hopes the renewed interest will give the sport the attention it deserves.

“Horse racing is a sport I think doesn't get the notoriety it should,” Roth said. “Look around, you see everybody having a great time.”

Attendees like Jack Dash decided to attend the Belmont Stakes in June for the first time with some friends. But he’s sure it won’t be his last race.

“Look, the atmosphere here is unbelievable,” Dash said. “I've never been in anything like this, like outside with all the food trucks and everything. It's beautiful. And, then everyone's, like betting on horses. It's a good time in general.”

His brother, Ethan Dash, concurred.

“I'm not going to disclose how much money I'm up,” he said. “But it's up, and we're having a great time.”

Kathleen Kennally, who’s been to Belmont ten times, finds it gives her a chance to dress up and mingle with the crowd.

“You go on an airplane and people are wearing their pajamas,” Kennally said. “I get it. But I also think that there's a little elegance lost in the world. And I think that race day brings it all back.”

The warm weather makes it even better. Carl Smith and his wife Pauline traveled to all the Triple Crown races in 2022 and said the jovial crowd makes the trips worth it even if each journey doesn’t turn out to be a winner.

“You just got to get out and live,” he said.