Blood-Horse Publications

Handle Dives Almost 10% in Third Quarter

The economy appears to be taking its toll on pari-mutuel handle this year.

Handle on races in the United States sharply dropped 9.85% in the third quarter of this year, clearly in keeping with a trend that began in early 2008.

Purses, meanwhile, dropped 2.37%, perhaps a sign that the bump provided by gaming machines at racetracks is beginning to level off. The number of race days—individual programs at all tracks—fell 1.29%.

The “Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators” were reported Oct. 9 by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Equibase, which release them each quarter. The numbers reflect handle in the U.S. and Canada on U.S. Thoroughbred racing, as well as U.S. purses.

Comparisons are made with the same quarter from the previous year. Industry officials have generally blamed the decline in handle on economic conditions in the U.S., and the current state of the financial market in the U.S. and beyond figures to dent fourth-quarter results as well.

For the nine months that ended Sept. 30, wagering was down 5.75% compared with 2007, while purses dropped 0.04% and race days were off by 0.87%.

“Our industry’s difficult year continued during the summer as a harsh economy and other factors continued to negatively impact business,” NTRA president and chief executive officer Alex Waldrop said in a statement.

Following an Oct. 8 press conference to announce Churchill Downs as host of the 2010 Breeders' Cup World Championships, Churchill Downs Inc. president and chief executive officer Bob Evans noted even casinos around the country are reporting declines in play, which for the most part is discretionary spending.

"You don't usually see the gambling industry suffer drops (in business)," Evans said. "You're seeing the same thing in horse racing. People don't have to go to the track."

The numbers aren’t a surprise given declines in business at two major summer meets: Del Mar and Saratoga. The trend continued into the fall at other meets; even Keeneland, despite ideal weather, was down double digits for its opening weekend.

Wagering for the third quarter of 2008 totaled $3,489,171,872, down from $3,870,348,046 last year. Purses totaled $350,636,880 versus $359,154,213 in the third quarter of 2007. There were 1,913 race days compared with 1,938 last year.

For the first nine months of 2008, wagering was $10,754,907,211; it was $11,411,642,388 the first nine months of 2007. Purses were $891,938,358, down from $892,336,110. Race days totaled 4,786, down from 4,828.

All handle figures include worldwide commingled wagering on U.S. races as well as separate-pool wagering in Canada on U.S. races, officials said.