SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Saratoga ended its 120th season of racing Monday -- and busted all its records.

This is getting to be an old story, of course, but any racing executive in the world nevertheless would look with amazement at Saratoga's figures.

The average daily attendance here was 28,407. The on-track handle averaged more than $3.5 million a day, the total handle (including off-track betting) nearly $10 million.

Only Santa Anita, with its massive physical plant and the huge Southern California population to draw from, draws bigger crowds. If rain hadn't dampened the final week here, Saratoga might have surpassed Santa Anita's figures. But if present trends continue, Saratoga will catch up in the next year or two and be certified officially as the most popular track in America.

What is the secret of its success when attendance at so many race tracks has been declining? Is Saratoga a unique case, or is there something in its formula that could be exported to other racing areas?

Saratoga has succeeded in attracting a broad range of fans instead of a strictly gambling-oriented crowd. It can do this because of its spacious, charming, tree-lined grounds which, indeed, are better suited for picnicking than race-watching.

Visitors come here in such a festive spirit that they don't care about the inadequacies of Saratoga's plant. Just as people are willing to subject themselves to ants and other indignities at a picnic, Saratoga racegoers cheerfully accept the fact that there probably is nowhere they can sit and watch the races. (The ancient grandstand has a seating capacity of little more than 16,000.)

Of course, the marketing departments of many race tracks also try to reach a broad audience. Few succeed.

"The frustrating thing," said New York Racing Association President Gerard McKeon, "is that we basically do the same things downstate as we do at Saratoga. The quality of the racing at Belmont's fall meeting is comparable to Saratoga's. We do similar types of marketing {such as T-shirt and tote-bag giveaways}. Belmont is a gorgeous track with big park areas, too."

Yet the chart of attendance at Belmont has pointed straight downward, year after year, while Saratoga's has been going straight up.

So what's the difference? Nobody has given the question more thought than McKeon, and he has arrived at a conclusion that might have far-reaching applications in the racing business: "It is clear," he said, "that if you limit the supply {of racing}, you increase the demand."

The short duration of the season makes it seem precious, compared to the endless day-to-day grind in most racing areas. People in Upstate New York (and fans around the country) spend 11 months whetting their appetites for the 24-day meeting.

"When you run longer and longer meetings," McKeon said, "you lose the aura of racing as a sport, and then you fall prey to other gambling competition. If tracks could look far down the road, and could give up some temporary short-term gains, they'd be better off with shorter seasons."

There is plenty of evidence to support the less-is-more philosophy. Such tracks as Oaklawn Park and Del Mar have prospered in the manner of Saratoga because they have seasons of well-defined proportions. California and Maryland have benefited from five-day racing weeks.

Unfortunately for NYRA, it can't do anything about the glut of downstate racing because of the competition from off-track betting.

"If we close," McKeon said, "OTB will just take bets on Florida or California." But NYRA isn't going to tamper with the one good thing it has, and would not consider lengthening the season of its most successful track. Racing fans will have to wait 11 months for the next day of racing at Saratoga.