03/05/2012 1:36PM

Nationwide handle in February shows increase


Wagering on horse races at U.S. tracks in February jumped 7.6 percent compared to February of last year, according to figures released Monday by Equibase, the second time in three months that wagering has risen.

Even though handle was down by 1.1 percent in January, the February jump and an 18 percent increase in handle in December indicate that racing may have finally turned the corner after three years of relentless drops in handle. Because of a 4.5 percent reduction in race days in January, the 1.1 percent drop in betting was somewhat illusory, as betting per race day rose 3.5 percent.

The jump in handle was accompanied by a 13.9 percent increase in purses distributed during the month, helped in large part by casino subsidies for purses at Aqueduct that kicked in at the start of 2012. Race days also increased, by 6.4 percent, as mild winter weather led to fewer cancellations by tracks in the Midwest and Northeast. There also was an extra day – Leap Day, Feb. 29 – this February.

For the first two months of the year, handle is up 3.24 percent, Equibase said, rising from $1.65 billion in the first two months of 2011 to $1.70 billion this year. Purses are up 8.26 percent, from $126.4 million to $136.8 million, and race days are up 0.8 percent, from 642 to 647.

Prior to the December jump in handle, wagering on races at U.S. racetracks declined for 46 straight months, with one exception, November of 2009, when a quirk on the calendar provided for a slight gain. In that month, Breeders’ Cup was held in November, whereas the 2008 Breeders’ Cup was held in October.