01/05/2016 2:01PM

U.S. betting handle up 1.2 percent in 2015

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Handle on U.S. races in 2015 was up slightly compared to wagering in 2014 despite a sharp decline in the number of races held during the year, according to figures released on Tuesday by Equibase.

All-sources handle on races held at U.S. racetracks was up 1.2 percent, according to the figures, from $10.55 billion in 2014 to $10.68 billion in 2015. The jump was the first uptick in wagering on U.S. races since 2012, and only the second increase since 2006, when handle began sharply contracting on the sport and racetracks were holding roughly 15,000 more races a year.

During 2015, racetracks held 38,942 races, down 5.7 percent from the number of races in 2014 and the lowest number of races since the early 1960s. Just 10 years ago, racetracks held 53,595 races, but the number has sharply declined as racing’s handle eroded, and, more significantly over the last five years, as the annual foal crop began to plummet.

Handle is still well below the highwater mark of $15.2 billion, set in 2003. Unadjusted for inflation, which has been tame for the past decade, handle remains 29.6 percent lower since the mark was set.

The average handle per race held in 2015 jumped 7.25 percent, from $255,626 to $274,157. The increase augurs well for the financial prospects of racetracks that are attracting the vast majority of wagers, while also contributing to record average purses at U.S. racetracks.

While total purses in 2015 were down 1.6 percent compared to purse distribution in 2014, from $1.11 billion to $1.09 billion, the average purse per race was up 4.3 percent, to $28,084, easily a record. Purses at U.S. racetracks are heavily subsidized by casino revenues, though those subsidies are being threatened in several states due to proposed clawbacks from legislatures.

Field size for all U.S. races was up 1.8 percent, according to calculations based on the Equibase figures.

The overall 2015 figures were aided by an extremely strong December. Wagering on U.S. races was up 8.1 percent during the month, according to Equibase, while the number of races held during the month dropped 2.1 percent. December weather throughout the Midwest was extremely warm compared to the weather in December in 2014. There were eight weekend dates in the month in 2015, the same number of December weekend dates in 2014.