04/05/2010 12:00AM

Parimutuel handle decline slows

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Total handle on U.S. races in March declined 6.2 percent compared to March of 2009, according to figures released by Equibase on Monday, a sizeable retreat that was tempered by the even larger declines in handle for January and February.

The handle figure declined from $1.064 billion in March of last year to $998.8 million in March of this year, according to Equibase. Though the 6.2 percent drop underlines racing's ongoing struggles to attract and maintain customers, the decline was at least better than the drops posted in January and February, when handle fell 12 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

Race days in March were down 3.6 percent, according to the figures, from 419 in March of last year to 404 in March of this year. For the year, race days are down 9.2 percent, from 1,154 through the first three months of 2009 compared to 1,048 through the first three months of this year.

Adverse weather in many parts of the country was responsible for a glut of raceday cancellations in February. However, much of the decline in race dates for the year is related to shorter race weeks at Turfway Park in Kentucky, along with a decision by West Virginia's Mountaineer Park to drop January and February from its live-racing calendar in 2010.

Purses distributed in U.S. races in March fell 7.2 percent, from $79.5 million in March of last year to $73.8 million this year. For the year, purses have declined 10 percent, from $216 million through the first three months of 2009 to $194.3 million through the first three months of 2010.

Handle on U.S. races began declining dramatically in the fall of 2008, coinciding with the collapse of the credit markets and the onset of the recession.

In 2009, total handle fell 9.9 percent to $12.3 billion, its lowest mark since 1996. Adjusted for inflation, the 2009 handle figure was down 30.3 percent compared to handle in 1999, when unadjusted handle was $13.7 billion, and down 22.5 percent compared to 1996, when the unadjusted handle figure was $11.6 billion.