Handful of Tracks, Bonus Fuel Purse Increase

Total Thoroughbred purses increased 3.42%--mostly from a limited number of sources--in 2004, while total handle on Thoroughbred races run in the United States declined less than 1%, according to a year-end "Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators" report released Jan. 12.

The purse increase of 2004 reversed trends during 2003, when total purses dropped 1.86% from the previous year. Through the middle of 2004, purses were up a little more than 1%. Included in the 2004 figure is the $5-million bonus won by Roy and Patricia Chapman's Smarty Jones for sweeping the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby (gr. II), and Kentucky Derby (gr. I).

Thoroughbred purses totaled $1,088,071,865 last year, up from $1,052,060,981 in 2003. Total Thoroughbred handle on U.S. races was $15,091,778,827, down 0.58% from $15,179,322,284. Race days--individual live racing programs--totaled 6,423, down 0.22% from 6,437 in 2003.

Aside from the bonus offered by Oaklawn Park, purses benefited from revenue from gaming machines at racetracks. Purse accounts at two tracks--Evangeline Downs in Louisiana and Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack in New York--reaped the benefits of gaming revenue for the first time in 2004.

Thoroughbred purses at Evangeline totaled $11.1 million, up $4.8 million from 2003. Purses at Finger Lakes totaled $16.6 million, up $5 million from the previous year. Meanwhile, at Charles Town Races & Slots, an established West Virginia racino, purses totaled $51.9 million in 2004, up $16.9 million from 2003. Part of the increase came from a decision by the local horsemen's association to disperse much of a $10-million underpayment in the purse account.

Those three tracks and the Oaklawn Centennial bonus earned by Smarty Jones accounted for $31.7 million of the overall $36-million purse gain last year.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Equibase release the economic indicators on a quarterly basis. A press release offered no explanation for the slight decline in handle, which generally inches up each year.

"The increase in purses is good news for horse owners and breeders," NTRA commissioner and chief executive officer D.G. Van Clief Jr. said in a release, "although it demonstrates the growing importance of alternative gaming within the pari-mutuel sector."

The NTRA in 2004 formed a Wagering Systems Task Force to examine what it called the "handle up, purses down" phenomenon. The resulting report contained many recommendations on improving the pari-mutuel model but fell short of calling for an end to rebate shops, which a year ago were blamed by some in the pari-mutuel industry for the drop in purses.