01/19/2011 2:48PM

Santa Anita business news is mixed

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ARCADIA, Calif. – Handle at Santa Anita has fallen through the first three weeks of the winter-spring meeting, but attendance is holding steady compared to the 2009-10 meeting, track president George Haines said earlier this week.

Through Sunday, ontrack handle was down 4 percent, while out-of-state handle had fallen 11 percent, Haines said. He described ontrack attendance as “flat.” More specific figures were not made available.

Precise comparisons to the opening weeks of the 2009-10 meeting are difficult because the current meeting is offering racing four days a week, on a Thursday through Sunday basis, compared to five days a week last year when racing was also held on Wednesdays in January.

Wet weather plagued training before Christmas, and cold conditions prevailed in late December, but the last two weeks have been clear and warmer, which led to an increase in attendance last weekend.

Haines said Sunday’s ontrack handle was up 4 percent over 2010. Figures released to the media indicated that ontrack handle was $1,500,843 on Sunday, compared to 1,443,103 in 2010. Attendance has also shown growth in recent days, Haines said.

“Once we got out of the rain and cold, it’s been encouraging,” he said.

Despite the drop in handle, Haines said there is no threat of a purse reduction. “We’re where we want to be, but that’s something that’s we’re looking at every day,” he said.

Overnight purses were increased at the start of the meeting after 2010 legislation permitted an increase of 2 to 3 percent in takeout for exotic wagers. The increase led some fans to call for a boycott of betting on races in California.

Haines said the track has run fewer races on some days this year, recognition that the circuit has had difficulty in filling 10 races on some weekend days. Last week, track officials estimated that there were more than 2,400 horses based at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park compared to 2,800 on Southern California backstretches last fall.

Through Monday, the track has averaged 7.7 starters per race compared with 7.83 during a similar period last year. For the entire 2009-10 meeting, the track averaged 7.81 starters per races.

Haines said smaller fields has been a factor in the decline in handle. “We’ve had short fields that have affected betting opportunities,” he said. “We haven’t had many carryovers.”

Through Monday, the 16th day of the meeting, there has been one pick six carryover, which helps to increase handle.

While there are signs of improvement – there are 78 horses entered on Friday’s eight-race program, including four on the also-eligible list – expanding to five programs a week for March and April, as currently scheduled, could be difficult.

“We’re evaluating that right now,” Haines said. “I think it’s too early to tell, but we’re very concerned about field sizes.”