02/19/2004 1:00AM

Santa Anita cuts losses


ARCADIA, Calif. - After posting sharp declines in late December and early January, mutuel handle at Santa Anita has rebounded in recent weeks but still trails 2003 figures, according to Jim McAlpine, the chief executive officer of the track's parent company, Magna Entertainment.

McAlpine addressed the issue Thursday at a California Horse Racing Board meeting. The board heard a 12-minute presentation from McAlpine and new track president Jack McDaniel on recent declines in handle at Southern California tracks.

Handle and purses have suffered declines since the Del Mar and Fairplex Park meetings last summer, which showed gains from 2003. But three consecutive meetings have suffered handle declines that resulted in purse cuts - the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita, the Hollywood Park fall meeting, and the current Santa Anita meeting.

As a result, officials said at Thursday's meeting, Hollywood Park and the Thoroughbred Owners of California have completed a purse agreement for Hollywood's upcoming spring-summer meeting that includes a 3 percent reduction in overnight purses and a 6 percent cut in stakes purses. Compounding the need for reductions is a purse overpayment from 2003.

Santa Anita has reduced its losses in the last month, McAlpine said.

When overnight purses were cut 6.5 percent at Santa Anita on Jan. 28, track officials said total handle had fallen 11 percent. The losses mostly occurred off track, with a 7 percent decline in statewide handle and a 17 percent drop in nationwide handle.

On Thursday, McAlpine said total handle at Santa Anita was down 6 percent. He said Golden Gate Fields was down 7.8 percent and Gulfstream Park was down 10 percent. Magna Entertainment owns the three tracks. "When you look across the country, it is not a pretty picture," he said.

McAlpine said some of the recent improvement has come after simulcast agreements were renegotiated with some services that offer rebates.

McAlpine said that handle from those sources fell considerably at the start of the meet, compared with 2003. But, he said, handle has recently caught up with and surpassed last year's levels.

In an interview later at Santa Anita, McAlpine declined to name which services reached renegotiated agreements or whether agreements were reached with all services.

"We don't talk about individual customers," he said. "I don't think we lost anyone we wanted to keep."

In January, Magna renegotiated deals with at least three large rebate shops - Racing and Gaming Services in St. Kitts, Holiday Beach in Curacao, and a tribal casino in Oklahoma - that included price breaks based on the volume of wagers through the sites, according to racing officials. Officials at rebate shops had said that handle at their facilities on Santa Anita and Gulfstream had dropped off in 2004, when the price of the signals was raised.

- additional reporting by Matt Hegarty