10/20/2004 12:00AM

Purses rise as handle dips

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Total wagering handle in North America declined marginally in the third quarter of 2004 compared to 2003, but total purses rose, according to figures released Wednesday by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Equibase Company.

The figures reversed a trend from last year, when handle rose but purses declined. NTRA officials cautioned that they believed that the purse growth was attributable to increasing subsidies from slot machines at racetracks.

Total wagering in the third quarter of 2004 was $3.92 billion, a 2.13 percent decrease from last year's third quarter, when total wagering was $4,005,677,889. Purses rose 2.9 percent from $306,800,417 to $315,684,202. Race days increased 2.3 percent from 1,950 to 1,995, another factor that contributed to the growth in purses.

Earlier this year, the NTRA commissioned a task force to study why purses in 2003 declined despite increases in handle. The report concluded that tracks and horsemen were getting lower shares of the takeout because of proliferation of offtrack betting and account-wagering operations. The report also said that when subsidies from slot machines were removed from purse figures, the declines were more pronounced.

Greg Avioli, the president of the NTRA, said Wednesday that he believed that the increase in purses was "consistent" with the trends outlined in the report.