California Handle Down Again in 2010-11

Fiscal year saw a wagering decline of $537 million; equine fatality figures improve.

While pari-mutuel handle in California racing continued its free fall during the 2010-11 fiscal year, equine fatalities in the state due to catastrophic racing or training injuries improved during the same period.

Total handle -- the amount wagered on horse racing in California and bet in other racing jurisdictions and merged into state pools -- declined by more than $537 million over the previous year, according the California Horse Racing Board's annual fiscal report.

The total dipped to $2.90 billion for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, a 15.6% drop from the preceding 12 month's total of $3.44 billion. Total pari-mutuel handle has plummeted by nearly $1.5 billion since 2007-08, when about $4.39 billion was wagered.

The totals are for all forms of horse racing in the state, including Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse, harness, and mixed breed.

Meanwhile, equine fatalities due to catastrophic training or racing injuries declined by 15.4% over the same period, from 220 in 2009-10 to 186. 

"It continues a trend that we have seen the past several years. And while it's good news, it should be noted that the number of fatalities are declining at a rate that corresponds to the decline in the number of starters we are seeing, about 10%," said Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director.

There were 52,282 starters in California races during 2010-11, down 10.5% from 58,444 a year earlier.

Overall, the number of deaths at horse racing enclosures in the state declined modestly from 287 to 265, including those that are non-exercise-related, such as from colic, colitis and enteritis, or respiratory diseases such as pneumonia. The most significant decline was in fatalities during racing, from 123 to 100, or 18.7%.

Arthur said improved pre-race veterinarian examinations were responsible for much of that. He also felt that track maintenance, especially of engineered synthetic surfaces, has improved over time following "a very steep learning curve."

On the handle side, all sources of wagering -- on-track, off-track, out-of-state, and advance deposit -- declined when compared to the previous year.

Advance deposit wagering by computer or telephone through three authorized state providers, once a bright spot in betting trends after it was approved in California in 2002, dipped for the second straight year. ADW accounted for $613,045,548 in 2010-11, down 8% from the prior year's total of $666,380,287. Yet even with the $53 million slippage, ADW accounted for 21.11% of total handle, up from 19.36% in 2009-10.

On-track handle, which now accounts for just 14.1% of total wagering, dipped 16.8% in 2010-11, from $493 million to $410 million. In-state simulcast wagering slipped by $92 million, or 10.1%, from $908 million to $816 million. Out-of-state handle took a whopping 22.6% hit, from $1.374 billion to $1.064 billion.

Kirk Breed, the CHRB's executive director, noted that the figures are from several months ago. He said that other factors, such as the number of horses that are being claimed and improved breeding figures indicate that interest is increasing and a turnaround is in progress.

"Racing in California is getting healthier," he said. "I really think it is."

As a result of the wagering declines, track commissions were off by 13%, from about $138 million to just under $120 million. Purses benefited from legislation increasing the takeout on exotic wagers from 2% to 3% that went into effect after Jan. 1. As a result, purse money declined by only 5.1% during the fiscal year, from $135.8 million to $128.8 million.

Awards for the state breeders' incentive program fell 18.4%, from $12.6 million to $10.3 million. Revenue derived from simulcast fees for such categories as the stabling and vanning fund, promotion of racing, simulcast expenses, and guest site fees to authorized off-track betting facilities, declined 11.4%, from $72.2 million to $64 million.

The annual report for 2010-11 and archived reports from past years are available on the publications link of the CHRB website,