04/18/2006 12:00AM

Total handle rises on signal's strength

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Brisk business offtrack helped Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., achieve a 12 percent increase in average daily handle during its 53-date meet that closed Saturday. The track's average daily attendance dipped a bit, as Oaklawn lost what is traditionally its second-biggest weekend of the meet to a winter storm in February.

Oaklawn handled $4,501,415 a day on its races, up from $4,009,999 for the 55-day 2005 meet. Of that amount, an average of $3,490,836 a day was bet offsite, up 18 percent from $2,956,970 in 2005. Ontrack, an average of $1,010,579 a day was bet on Oaklawn's races, down 4 percent from $1,052,129 a day in 2005.

The overall increase in business offtrack was driven by a couple of factors, said Oaklawn's general manager, Eric Jackson.

"For the first time we went into Canada," he said of the track's races, "and also, the Fair Grounds signal not being available, I think we just picked up more play on our signal."

Fair Grounds conducted an abbreviated meet at Louisiana Downs that ended in January, a situation brought on by Hurricane Katrina.

Oaklawn drew an average of 12,161 patrons a day ontrack, a 5 percent dip from 12,842 in 2005. The numbers were affected by inclement weather on a number of weekends, including the loss of the Presidents Day holiday weekend, a three-day period that accounts for 10 percent of business each year at Oaklawn.

Purses jumped to a record $282,810 a day this meet, up 7 percent from $264,424 in 2005. The increase was driven by part by Instant Racing, a parimutuel game that plays like a slot machine. Oaklawn handled an average of $1,111,295 a day on the machines, up from an average of $703,000 during the meet in 2005.

"It sounds trite, but all's well that ends well," said Jackson. "We took our lumps from the weather as we went through the season, but it all lined up in the end, both the weather and the racing."

Oaklawn set a track record for attendance last Saturday, when 72,464 patrons turned out to watch Lawyer Ron win the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby.

"It was just absolutely jammed everywhere," said Jackson.

Cole Norman won his sixth straight training title, with 41 wins from 222 starters. His stable earned $674,218. The leading rider was John Jacinto, who edged Luis Quinonez by one win on the final day, with 45 victories from 301 mounts. Jacinto's mounts earned $902,334. The leading owner in wins was Ken Murphy Thoroughbreds Ltd., with 11 wins from 28 starters at Oaklawn.