Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs

Anne M. Eberhardt

Organizers Believe Boycott Impacted Churchill

Regulators say Churchill's total spring meet handle was down 11.5%.

A horseplayers group believes its boycott negatively impacted handle at the Churchill Downs spring meet where the total money wagered decreased by more than $48 million based on numbers reported by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

The Horseplayers Association of North America supported a boycott of Churchill's meet when the Louisville track announced before opening day that takeout would be increased for all wagers. Although Churchill does not report or comment on meet handle figures, the track did note difficulties in maintaining field sizes which were down from last year and 24 fewer races being offered at this year's meet.

The Louisville track is required to submit handle information to the KHRC. Blood-Horse obtained those KHRC handle figures for Churchill through a Freedom of Information Act request.

According to the KHRC numbers, total wagering on Churchill Downs races this year reached $368,808,994, which is down 11.5% compared with last year's total of $416,853,804. On-track wagering fared better; at $55,974,321 it was off just 2.4% compared with 2013.

Before the meet started, HANA called for a boycott of the Churchill meeting after the track announced takeout rates on win, place, and show wagers would be increased from 19% to 22% and takeout on exotic wagers would go from 19% to 22%. Takeout is the money removed from the pools before winning wagers are paid and it is used largely to fund the track and purses.

HANA president Jeff Platt believes the protest, as well as decreased churn—winnings that players return back into the pools—were big reasons for the handle decline. Higher takeouts result in reduced winnings in players' hands to wager back into pools. According to Churchill Downs, this year's takeout increase resulted in 79% of total wagering dollars returned to bettors this year compared with 81.6% last year.

On a website documenting the boycott efforts, organizers noted that if players had supported the Churchill meeting, other tracks would be encouraged to increase takeout rates. Organizers noted that the handle decline was especially dramatic if Kentucky Derby day, which saw handle increase 1% to $186.6 million this year, was not considered.

Studies have linked field sizes and handle. Generally, larger field sizes help increase handle. At Churchill, the average field in the 372 races conducted at the 2014 spring-summer meet was 7.29 horses, a decline from an average of 7.78 horses-per-race during the same meet in 2013, which also consisted of 38 racing days.

Churchill said the decline in the horse population and competition for available horses, especially those in mid-to-lower level claiming races, prompted the track to run 372 races during the spring meet, compared with 396 races run during the spring of 2013. That gave the track 24 fewer races to generate handle.

"The smaller field sizes are the results of a combination of factors that include years of substantial decline in the North American foal crop and increased regional competition for horses from racetracks in Indiana and Ohio with purses fed by casino revenues," Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery said in a release. 

Boycott organizers continue to call for wagering to be withheld on the Louisville track's remaining 2014 meets as well as other tracks and properties owned by Churchill Downs Inc.