04/04/2012 11:48AM

U.S. handle continues ascent in March

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Handle and purses at U.S. racetracks soared in March compared to the same month last year, according to figures released on Wednesday by Equibase, continuing a string of unlikely monthly improvements for a sport that has suffered serious declines over the past three years.

Handle jumped 9.5 percent in the month compared to last March, from $899.3 million to $984.4 million, while purses were up 12.4 percent, from $78.3 million to $88 million. Race days were up 1.8 percent, from 387 to 394, so the gain in handle outpaced the addition of race days.

Handle, which is the industry’s best measurement of the demand for its product, has now posted gains in three of the last four months. Prior to the first increase, in December, handle had declined for 46 straight months, with one exception that was due to a quirk of the calendar.

The March figures benefited from five Saturdays during the month. Handle on weekend days are generally much stronger than handle for weekday cards. In addition, most of the East Coast experienced unusually mild weather conditions during the month.

However, even with those caveats, many racetracks, most notably Gulfstream, Aqueduct, and Santa Anita, have posted strong gains in handle through the first three months of the year despite reams of bad publicity for the sport due to a renewed focus on racing injuries. Both Gulfstream and Aqueduct have raised their purses substantially this year, in large part because of subsidies from casino revenues.

For the year, wagering is up 5.4 percent, while purses are up 9.8 percent, according to Equibase. Race days are up 1.2 percent.