01/05/2017 1:36PM

Total handle for 2016 flat despite fewer races being run


Total handle on U.S. races in 2016 was nominally equal to the figure from 2015, according to figures released by Equibase on Thursday, with wagering growing 0.6 percent to $10.74 billion.

Although the growth has been miniscule and has not exceeded the core inflation rate, handle on U.S. races has now increased nominally for two years in a row. Handle on U.S. races had not increased two years in a row since 2003, when the growth rates were similarly shallow following a strong run-up in wagering during the emergence of full-card simulcasting in many racing states.

Handle has inched forward despite a continuing contraction in the number of races held at U.S. racetracks. In 2016, the number of races fell 1.7 percent to 38,284, according to Equibase, which is the fewest races held by tracks in the modern racing era. The reduction reflects the impact of a sharp contraction in the foal crops from 2010 to 2012, along with decisions by many racetracks to pare racing dates from their schedules.

The decline in races has meant that racetracks are attracting more handle per race than in the past, and that trend continued last year, with average handle per race increasing 2.3 percent to $280,408, compared with $274,157 in 2015. The 2015 average handle figure was a 7.3 percent increase over the same figure in 2014.

The total amount of purses distributed in U.S. races in 2016 fell 0.9 percent to $1.08 billion, the fourth year in a row in which purses have declined. However, because of the larger drop in races held, the average purse per race climbed to a record $28,308. Purses at U.S. racetracks are heavily subsidized by casino revenue.

The average field size declined from 7.85 horses per race to 7.80, a drop of 0.6 percent. Many racetracks are struggling with field sizes due to the foal-crop contraction and training strategies that increasingly favor giving horses long layoffs in between races.

For December, wagering was up 3.3 percent from December 2015, while purses in the month were up 5.2 percent. The wagering and purse figures climbed despite a small decline in the number of races held in the month.