01/06/2010 1:00AM

Handle for 2009 hits lowest total since 1996


Handle on U.S. Thoroughbred races in 2009 plunged 9.9 percent compared to 2008, sending handle to its lowest level since 1996, according to Equibase, as the recession and myriad internal problems continued to hammer away at the U.S. racing industry's declining market share.

Betting on U.S. races, including wagers made in foreign countries, was $12.3 billion in 2009, down from $13.7 billion in 2008. Handle has declined 16.3 percent since 2007, when wagering on U.S. races was $14.7 billion.

Purse money distributed in U.S. races in 2009 was also down, but to a lesser degree than handle, due in large part to subsidies from slot machines at racetracks. According to Equibase, total purse distribution was $1.09 billion in 2009, down 5.6 percent compared to purse distribution of $1.16 billion in 2008. The 2009 figure is the lowest since 2005, when purses were $1.085 billion.

Like nearly all entertainment industries outside of Hollywood, the racing industry has been battered by the drop in consumer confidence and discretionary income that has accompanied the country's deep recession. But the industry has also been fighting public-perception problems and a persistent loss of market share in a country where states are rapidly expanding gambling opportunities.

"It would be a big mistake to blame all of this on the recession and think when it's all over we can just bounce back to where we were," said Chris Scherf, the executive vice president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, a racetrack trade group. "We have big problems that need to be addressed in the industry, from the number of races run to problems with the wagering system. We have to get more customer-centric."

The credit crisis that played a large part in triggering the recession has also administered a beating to the bloodstock markets, leading to predictions that the U.S. foal crop will contract significantly over the next several years. To maintain field sizes attractive to bettors, most racing officials believe that the industry will have to offer far less racing days in the future.

According to the Equibase figures, race days contracted by 2.6 percent in 2009 compared to 2008, dropping from 6,093 to 5,934.

"If people think we can go forward with the same number of races and offer the betting public five- or six-horse fields, this decline is going to continue," Scherf said. He also cited slot machines for skewing incentives at racetracks to offer more race days, rather than less, and "giving racetracks a reason to do the exact opposite of what we need as an industry."