02/04/2011 1:42PM

Handle drops again in January

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Handle on U.S. races continued its downward spiral in January, declining 9.7 percent compared withhandle in January of last year, according to figures released by Equibase on Friday, but the decline was almost certainly exacerbated by unusually harsh weather conditions.

The decline, from $917 million in January of last year to $827.9 million in January of this year, was accompanied by a 4.6 percent decline in race days, from 346 to 330, in part because of cancellations and in part because of continuing efforts by tracks to cut back on live racing dates because of difficulties filling races.

Purses distributed during the month rose 0.8 percent, from $63.6 million to $64.1 million, according to the figures. The increase was tied to higher purses in California, where a takeout increase went into effect at the beginning of the year, with all the proceeds devoted to purses, and to higher purses at Gulfstream Park in Florida, where racetrack casinos are being taxed at a significantly lower rate now than last January. Some of those savings are being pushed into purses at the track.

A number of blizzards and other winter storms affected racing in the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard in January, leading to frequent cancellations. Handle on U.S. races, however, has been declining by approximately 8 percent on a month-to-month basis for several years, as the sport continues to struggle to maintain market share and attract new bettors.

Last year, handle on U.S. races declined 7.3 percent compared with 2009, sending the figure to its lowest level since 1995. Purses, which are heavily subsidized by slot-machine revenues, dropped 6.1 percent, and race days dropped 7.8 percent.