Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs

Anne M. Eberhardt

HANA Reports $19M Churchill Handle Decline

Horsemen in the state believe small field sizes are contributing to handle decline.

A horseplayers group that organized a protest of Churchill Downs racetrack after a takeout increase was announced before the Louisville track's spring meeting, reports handle is down $19.3 million through the first 14 race days.

The Horseplayers Association of North America reports spring meet handle compared with last year is down 6.4% to $284,568,040 at Churchill. That figure represents a $1.4 million decline per race day. The HANA figures can't readily be compared with track figures because other than big race days, Churchill Downs does not release handle figures. The track does release handle figures to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

Before the spring meet, Churchill announced takeout rates on win, place, and show wagers would be increased from 16% to 17.5% and increased on exotic wagers 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. The increase has resulted in just 79% of total wagering dollars returned to bettors this year compared with 81.6% last year.

On Kentucky Derby day, the amount of money taken from pari-mutuel pools for takeout increased $4.7 million. But, according to the HANA numbers, handle has been down on all but two of the 14 race days this season and that trend has meant that the additional takeout money generated at the meet currently is at $3.4 million.

HANA president Jeff Platt said that if the trend continues, he could see the takeout increase actually resulting in reduced revenues from takeout at Churchill, if not by the end of the spring meet, then by the end of the September meeting.

"They made a calculated decision that handle is so great on Derby day and Oaks day that they could fleece an unsuspecting public," Platt said, before adding that perhaps takeout could be increased for just those two days. "If they want to treat Derby day and Oaks day as special event days that carry a higher takeout, maybe the demand for the product will support that. But it does not support a takeout increase on an everyday basis."

Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association executive director Marty Maline is not sure how much of the decline in handle can be attributed to the boycott. He believes much of the decline can be attributed to small field sizes at the Churchill meeting.

"Due to the takeout increase, our purses are remaining strong," Maline said. "We've had some trouble with short fields and I think that has contributed to business being down."

Maline added that Churchill's takeout rates are competitive with many tracks throughout the country and lower than many other tracks.

Churchill had said one of the reasons it was increasing takeout was to keep purses high to attract quality horses and field sizes as large as possible while competing with states that boost purses with money from added gaming, such as bordering Indiana and Ohio.

Platt said takeout increases are frustrating for players. HANA members have noted that Churchill Downs Inc. also receives money from the increased takeout rate and those revenues helped the company enjoy record Derby week profits. And the track has not added Instant Racing games, which have helped boost purses at Kentucky Downs and Ellis Park and soon will be added at Keeneland.

Platt said the 3,000 HANA members are withholding—not betting—from $1 million to $1.5 million daily at Churchill and while those numbers are not noticed on Derby day, they can be a significant part of the pool on everyday race cards.

"I'm not surprised at how players have supported this," Platt said. "When we've surveyed members about matters that are important to them, they consistently name takeout as the number one reason they bet less than they otherwise would."

According to HANA numbers, the increased takeout rate helped cumulative takeout spike 11.42% through Derby day when compared with last year. But since that day, the sixth of the meet, the steady decline in handle has seen that increase in cumulative takeout fall. After 14 days, the cumulative takeout was up just 6.21%.

Platt believes that even without the organized boycott, the takeout increase would have resulted in reduced handle because of decreased churn by players. Churn is winnings put back through the windows at the track.

The group also reports that its members have boycotted Arlington Park and Calder Casino & Race Course, which are both owned by Churchill Downs Inc., because of the takeout increase at the Louisville track. Platt said handle numbers are down at both tracks, although some of the Calder decline can be explained from increased competition from Gulfstream Park.

The group reports a 32% decline at Arlington. That decline and the 6.4% decline at Churchill are worse than the overall decline this year. Through April, pari-mutuel handle was down 3.08%.

Platt said his group has not heard from anyone at Churchill Downs but would welcome any discussion.