Updated on 01/05/2012 4:40PM

Handle on U.S. races soars 18% in December; 2011 handle down 5.65%

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Wagering on U.S. races soared nearly 18 percent in December 2011, compared to the same December last year, according to figures released by Equibase on Thursday, a stunning monthly turnaround for an industry that has weathered nearly four years of stubborn, protracted declines in its key economic indicators.

The gain – which was partly attributable to an earlier opening at Gulfstream Park in Florida – outpaced a 10 percent jump in live race dates during the month, and it contributed to a 23.6 percent gain in purses distributed.

According to Equibase, the December jump in handle was the first month-over-month gain since a 1.4 percent increase in November 2009, but that jump was entirely due to a quirk of the calendar – the Breeders’ Cup in 2008 was held in October, while the Breeders’ Cup in 2009 was held in November, boosting that year’s November figures in comparison with the previous November. Disregarding that blip, it was the first increase in handle since February 2008, 46 months ago.

In addition, the gain ate into the steady month-to-month erosion of racing’s handle figure for the 2011 calendar year, though the final figures remained down compared to 2010. For the 12 months ended in December, wagering on U.S. races declined 5.65 percent, to $10.77 billion, the lowest level of annual handle since 1995, unadjusted for inflation.

Still, purses, which are heavily subsidized by slot-machine revenues in many states, rose 2.89 percent for the year, to $1.05 billion, the first annual increase since 2007, Equibase said. Race dates declined by 3.2 percent, to 5,298.

In addition to the 10 percent jump in race dates, several factors contributed to the December surge, including the opening of Gulfstream Park on Dec. 3. Gulfstream, which is one of the most popular winter signals in the United States, had previously opened in January, but the track opened one month earlier this year, replacing live race dates at Calder Race Course, which draws far less in wagers per day than Gulfstream.

In addition, at the beginning of December 2010, New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation abruptly closed its doors, leading to a significant drop-off in handle as the company’s regular customers adjusted to the shutdown. Also, weather in December 2011 was milder than the December weather on both the East and West Coasts in December 2010, contributing to the jump in race dates.

For December 2011, handle was $880.6 million, up from $679.2 million in December 2010, according to the figures. Purses were up from $56.5 million to $69.9 million, while race dates jumped from 314 in December 2010, to 348 in December 2011.

Total wagering on U.S. races hit its high in 2003, at $15.2 billion. In the next four years, handle hovered around the $15 billion mark, before suffering declines of 7.2 percent, 9.9 percent, and 7.3 percent in 2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively. Including the 2011 figures, handle still remains 28.9 percent lower than the 2003 figure, unadjusted for inflation.