01/05/2015 2:18PM

Handle in 2014 drops nearly 3 percent


Total handle on U.S. races in 2014 dropped to its lowest level since 1995, unadjusted for inflation, though the drop was mitigated by an even greater decline in the number of races held at U.S. tracks during the year, according to figures released Monday by Equibase.

Total handle for 2014 was $10.55 billion, including wagers from foreign jurisdictions commingled into U.S. pools, a drop of 2.8 percent compared with handle of $10.86 billion in 2013, according to the figures. The total figure is the lowest since bettors wagered $10.42 billion in 1995, a figure that amounts to $16.15 billion when adjusted for inflation.

However, total races in the U.S. fell 4.3 percent during the year as racetracks adjusted to a tightening of the available horse supply due to significant declines in the foal crop from 2010-12. The average handle per race in 2014 was $255,643, up 1.5 percent from $251,789 in 2013.

U.S. starts declined at a greater rate than the number of races, at 6.25 percent, reducing average field size in 2014 to 7.71 horses per race. Field size in 2013 was 7.87 horses per race. Handle typically declines as field size declines.

The 2014 figures underline the problems U.S. racing continues to face as the sport matures. Handle on U.S. races has increased only twice in the past 10 years, both by marginal amounts, even when the figures are unadjusted for inflation. Handle on horse racing peaked in 2003 at $15.18 billion.

Total purses distributed during the year were down 1.4 percent, to $1.11 billion. Because the number of races dropped so sharply, the average purse per race, however, was up 3.1 percent. Purses at many U.S. racetracks are heavily subsidized by casinos.

Figures for the number of races run during December showed the sharpest year-over-year decline in years. Racetracks in the U.S. ran 2,427 races in December, compared with 2,745 races in December 2013, a drop of 11.6 percent. This past December, Aqueduct in New York sharply pared its schedule.

Wagering on U.S. races last month was down 9.1 percent, while purses distributed during the month were down 12.4 percent, reflecting the outsized role that Aqueduct has on total purse distribution at U.S. racetracks. Field size last month was up 2.4 percent, from 8.3 horses per race in December 2013 to 8.5 horses per race.