10/30/2017 2:40PM

Keeneland handle down 8.7 percent


LEXINGTON, Ky. – Total handle on Keeneland’s races during the track’s 17-day fall meet was down 8.7 percent compared with wagering during the fall meet last year, according to figures provided by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, a decline that strongly suggested the track’s betting figures suffered from calls to boycott the track because of its recent decision to raise its takeout rates.

The decline, which was most stark on weekends, occurred despite overall handle gains on races at competing tracks during the same time period, a trend that was especially evident when the wagering data was broken down to per-race numbers. That contradiction appeared to give credence to the theory that betting money flowed from Keeneland to competing tracks during the fall meet.

At the same time, the declines were not uniform on a day-to-day basis, with wagering down the most on a bad-weather Sunday early in the meet and on three of the meet’s four Saturday cards. In total, handle was down $8.57 million on those four cards, or nearly 75 percent of the total $11.51 million overall decline. Total handle during the meet dropped to $121.43 million, compared with $132.94 million last year, according to the KHRC figures.

While the $121.43 million figure was similar to the total handle for the 2015 fall meet (not including handle on the two-day Breeders’ Cup event) and down $4.7 million from the 2014 meet, the wagering total this year was well off the 2013 and 2012 meets, when handle during the fall meet exceeded $140 million each year. Handle dropped significantly in 2014 from the 2013 number. Keeneland ripped out its artificial track in the summer of 2014 and went back to dirt for the main surface.

Wagering was down on nine individual days of the fall meet this year, with wagering up on six of the dates, including one card in which Keeneland put on an additional race compared to the same date last year. Wagering on another date, one of the Saturdays, was statistically even with handle last year.

Bob Elliston, Keeneland’s vice president of sales and racing, cited the bad weather days and the transfer of eight races during the meet from turf to dirt for a portion of the declines, while also stating that Keeneland faced “headwinds” to post stronger wagering figures this year because of near record wagering totals last year. However, he also acknowledged that the takeout increases had played a role in the declines.

“You don't like to see declines, but with all the variables that go into it, it wasn’t the doom and gloom that people predicted, with people talking about drops of 25 percent or more,” Elliston said. “We were facing some headwinds in that last year we had some record days and perfect weather from the first race of the meet to the last race of the meet.”

Field size at the fall meet this year was 9.2 horses per race, up slightly compared to average field size of 9.1 horses per race last fall. On-track numbers also remained strong during the meet, with total attendance just shy of the record set last year and average on-track handle down 1.1 percent.

Purses were also a record this year, up 3.3 percent, to an average of $698,036 a day. Keeneland has raised purses every year for the past five years, and track officials said that the takeout increase was implemented in part to bolster the purse account.

While Keeneland was struggling to maintain its handle numbers, other major racetracks had solid Octobers. According to data collected by racing consultant Chris Rossi, who was briefly employed as a consultant for TimeformUS after Daily Racing Form bought the company earlier this year, handle throughout the industry during the Keeneland meet was up 5.5 percent compared with the same period last year, not including Keeneland’s races, with per-race handle up 10.7 percent. The data was collected from Equibase charts.

Santa Anita Park in Southern California reported that handle during its 19-day autumn meet was up eight percent, while total handle at Belmont Park in New York during the track’s fall meet was up 3.6 percent, with average daily handle up 12.5 percent, according to the New York Racing Association, which operates Belmont.

Elliston said that the comparison of Keeneland’s figures to those posted during the Belmont meet suffered from a lack of consideration of the wet weather in New York last year, and that the migration of dollars to New York may have been a case of betting money flowing back to Belmont after an off year at the track last year.

“This year [Belmont] had a dynamite meet after a poor meet last year,” Elliston said. The Belmont fall meet in 2016 was down 7.3 percent from the 2015 meet, according to NYRA.

Elliston also said that Keeneland had higher wagering revenues this year compared with last year, despite the decline in handle.

“We did, most certainly,” Elliston said. “And I can say it was a significant amount.”