09/12/2008 12:00AM

U.S. handle slips in August


Wagering on U.S. races in August this year fell 2.71 percent compared with August of last year, despite larger declines on the two most dominant summer tracks, Del Mar and Saratoga, according to figures released by Equibase on Thursday.

Wagering during August was $1,389,600,847 compared with wagering of $1,428,242,200 in August of last year, a decline of approximately $39 million, according to the figures. The figures seem to contradict anecdotal evidence that racing is suffering from a dramatic midsummer decline in business, based on the declines at Del Mar and Saratoga. But it is noteworthy that last August there were only eight weekend days of racing, when business tends to be strongest, compared with 10 weekend days this August.

Total race days were up 11 percent during August, from 639 to 709, according to the figures, principally because of a prolonged meet this year at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania, a racetrack built after the state legalized slot machines, and the reopening of Penn National Racecourse, also in Pennsylvania. On average, then, handle per race day in August this year was $1.96 million, whereas handle per race day in August of last year was $2.24 million, a decline this year of 12.5 percent.

Total handle for Saratoga's 36-day summer meet, which ended on Sept. 1, was down 10.3 percent this year, or about $60 million, in part because of inclement weather the first three weeks of the meet. Handle at Del Mar's 43-day meeting was down 7 percent, or approximately $39 million, for a total decline at the two tracks of $99 million. Equibase's August numbers appear to indicate that bettors shifted their wagering to tracks other than Del Mar and Saratoga.

Purses in August were up 10.65 percent, from $115.7 million last year to $128 million this year, according to the figures. Purses in racing have generally gone up over the last few years despite stagnant or declining handle numbers because of subsidies from slot machines.

Equibase has been releasing handle figures on a quarterly basis for several years, and the figures released on Thursday were the first to compare month-to-month results. Rhonda Norby, the communications manager for Equibase, said that the company had decided to release the figures on a monthly basis from now on, and that the declines at Del Mar and Saratoga were not a factor in the decision.

"We're compiling those on a monthly basis to come up with the quarterly figures, so we thought we might as well release them that way," Norby said. Equibase, a partnership of The Jockey Club and Thoroughbred Racing Associations, gathers past-performance and wagering data for the racing industry.

Year-to-date, through August, total wagering on U.S. races is down 3.99 percent, according to the figures, from $10.27 billion last year to $9.86 billion. The number of race days is up only slightly, 0.69 percent, from 4,213 last year to 4,242. Purses are up 2.63 percent, from $767.9 million last year to $788.1 million this year.

Last year, total wagering on U.S. races declined 0.37 percent compared with 2006, the third decline in the past four years. Purses rose 5.5 percent in 2007 compared with 2006.