11/02/2013 10:18PM

Breeders' Cup handle rises for first time in three years

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Handle at the Breeders’ Cup rose for the first time in three years this year, despite the event having one fewer race this year.

According to the charts of the races, held Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita, handle on the 14 races this year was $135.5 million, up 6.8 percent compared to preliminary reported handle of $126.8 million on 15 races last year. (The results do not include separate-pool wagering, which is typically added into the totals within a week of the event.) Last year's Breeders' Cup also was held at Santa Anita.

Last year, handle on the races was down 9.5 percent compared to 2011, when the event was held at Churchill Downs, a decline that was blamed in part on the aftereffects of Superstorm Sandy, which had caused power outages and transportation disruptions across the Eastern Seaboard.

Wagering this year was bolstered by a record pick five pool that drew $5.5 million in Saturday bets following a carryover of almost $900,000 when no one hit the bet on Friday. Wagering was especially strong early on in the Breeders’ Cup slate of Saturday races, but betting began to soften at the midpoint, a phenomenon that occurred on last year’s Saturday card as well.

Still, betting was up on the Classic, featuring a competitive 11-horse field, which ended dramatically moment when Mucho Macho Man just barely held off Will Take Charge in the shadow of the wire. Including all multi-leg bets ending in the Classic, betting on the race, which was shown in prime-time on NBC, was up 4.5 percent compared to last year.

Breeders’ Cup reported a crowd of 58,795 on Saturday, a gain of 6.6 percent over the Saturday crowd last year. Breeders’ Cup put together a lineup of pop-music stars to perform in the infield on Saturday, a first for that type of promotion, and attendance in the infield appeared to be sparse all day despite the entertainment.

On Friday, when five of the 14 Breeders’ Cup races were held, including the Distaff, attendance was 35,833, up 3.5 percent over last year’s Friday crowd. Both the Friday and Saturday cards were conducted in sunny, warm weather, the norm in Southern California for early November and one of the primary reasons Breeders’ Cup has targeted Santa Anita for four of its last six events. The Breeders’ Cup is also scheduled for Santa Anita next year.

When omitting the handle on the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint, a race that was discontinued this year after only two runnings, betting on the Breeders’ Cup races on the Friday card was largely flat compared to last year. Early on the Saturday card, however, perhaps due to the interest shown in the pick five – a 50-cent minimum bet with a 14 percent takeout that has become enormously popular in Southern California – betting was especially strong, with handle on the first three races up by double-digit percentages.

A total of 158 horses competed in the 14 races on Friday and Saturday, for an average of 11.3 horses per race. Last year, 162 horses ran in 15 races, for an average of 10.8 horses. Field size has a significant impact on betting handle.

Handle on a Saturday pick six with a guaranteed pool of $2.5 million was $3.28 million, slightly up from last year’s pick six handle of $3.14 million. A pick six held on the Friday card failed to hit its $1 million guarantee, leading to questions about the viability of the $2 minimum bet in an age when horseplayers have increasingly begun to prefer other multi-leg wagers with lower minimums. The Saturday result appeared to suggest the Friday result was a fluke, in part because the bet Friday did not include six Breeders’ Cup races this year, as it has for the past two years.

Handle on the early pick four on the Saturday card was $2.12 million, while handle on the late pick four was $3.73 million. Both handle totals were in line with those for the pick fours from last year.