Anne M. Eberhardt

Total U.S. Handle Lowest in a Decade

Annual pari-mutuel handle hits lowest total in a decade.

Hampered by a 20.3% drop in handle in December, wagering in the United States declined 7.2% in 2008 to record the lowest overall total in a decade.

Total commingled wagering on U.S. races and separate pool wagering in Canada totaled $13,670,196,938, down from the $14,723,993,055 wagered in 2007, according to data released Jan. 6 by Equibase.

The annual handle represented a 9.9% decline from the record $15,178,510,116 registered in 2003 and was the lowest total recorded for U.S. handle since an estimated $13.115 billion was wagered in 1998, according to data published in The Jockey Club Fact Book.

Wagering was affected by a number of factors in 2008, including a severe downturn in the U.S. economy, as well as disputes between various parties on signal distribution to advance deposit wagering entities that operate Internet, telephone, and mobile device betting platforms.

Christopher Scherf, executive director of the Thoroughbred Racing Association, which represents more than 40 racetracks in the U.S. and Canada, said the wagering decline was “drastic,” but not totally surprising.

“But it was maybe more than anyone expected,” he said.

Scherf feels the main cause for the steep drops should be attributed to economic turmoil in the U.S., but acknowledges the industry is not without fault in alienating bettors.

“I have no doubt that the account wagering debacle was harmful to our business at the worst possible time,” he said. “I also think that this should be a wakeup call to our industry that … we need to keep focused on the issues of pari-mutuel wagering and the bettors.

“Those things need to get equal attention of our industry in addition to other issues that are being addressed, such as equine safety, jockey safety, medication, etc," he continued. "The first voice we need to listen to are the bettors. If we are not meeting their needs, and obviously we are not, we need to figure out ways to address those.”

The president of the Horseplayers Association of North America, a grass-roots bettors’ advocacy organization, said he feels some handicappers have just simply chosen to not wager, or have cast their lot with off-shores and bookmakers.

“They are betting less or they are sitting on the sidelines,” said Platt, whose organization includes about 500 members. “And a lot of the bigger bettors are betting offshore, where they are getting a rebate, but not betting in the pools. That is definitely happening.”

But Platt said there were bright spots in 2008, such as resulting increased handle at Monmouth Park, Louisiana Downs, Hawthorne Racetrack, and more recently, Tampa Bay Downs. He feels there is a common thread of dynamics surrounding those tracks, including wide distribution of racing signals, larger field sizes, and, despite his own success handicapping on synthetic surfaces, the presence of dirt tracks.

“I don’t know how to conceptualize it, but the bettors do respond ... it creates a buzz,” he said. “You put a good field out there, put the signal out there, and run it on dirt, and they seem to respond.”

U.S. wagering in December was particularly hard hit, with $820,358,357 bet versus $1,029,358,904 during the same month of 2007.

Annual purse payouts declined 1.3% to $1,160,313,672, the first drop in three years. Purses paid in December totaled $60,123,263, a 13.4% decline from a year ago.

Overall race days in 2008 fell 1.2% to 6,095, down from 6,168 in 2007. There were 9.6% fewer race days in December, falling from 365 to 330.