01/05/2004 12:00AM

Purses fall, handle up slightly

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Purses in the United States fell for the first time in 10 years in 2003 despite an increase in handle, according to figures released by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Equibase on Monday.

Purses fell $20 million, or 1.86 percent, to $1.054 billion. Purses in 2002 were $1.074 billion. Handle in 2003 was up 0.9 percent, to $15.2 million, according to the figures.

Purses have not declined in the U.S. since 1993, when distribution dropped 2.5 percent, from $710 million to $692 million. Purses and handle have risen steadily in that decade because of growth in off-track wagering and simulcasting, with handle growing from $9.8 billion 10 years ago to the present-day figure.

The 0.9 percent increase in handle was the smallest increase since betting dropped in 1993. Handle has grown by an average of 5.2 percent since that year, easily beating inflation, and was topped by an 11.5 percent increase in 1996.

Many racing officials believe that the drop in purses can be attributed to the continuing migration of bettors to off-track sites, especially rebate shops. Many off-track sites do not contribute as much of each betting dollar to purses as racetracks do.

Tim Smith, the commissioner of the NTRA, said the drop in purses was a "serious concern," and he said studying the reasons behind the decrease will be a "priority matter" for the organization in 2004.

According to the figures, racing days in 2003 were down 1.7 percent, to 6,438. Much of the attrition came in the fourth quarter, when inclement weather soaked the East Coast and led to cancellations at many eastern and mid-Atlantic tracks. Seventy-eight fewer race days were held in the last three months of 2003 compared to the fourth quarter of 2002, according to the figures.

Remi Bellocq, the president of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said that horsemen have not reached a conclusion on what is leading to the drop in purses, although the association has been studying off-track betting for 18 months and suspects that rebate shops are siphoning off many bets that would have previously been placed at tracks.

"We obviously have a shift in the industry where more and more wagering is going off track, and the big question is whether horsemen are getting their fair share or not," Bellocq said. "It's a big wide world out there, and like it or not, the world is becoming one big OTB."