02/04/2010 12:00AM

U.S. handle takes another drop in January

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All-sources handle on U.S. Thoroughbred races in January was down 12 percent this year compared to last year and purses were down 10 percent, according to figures provided by Equibase on Thursday. The declines continued a sharp downward trend that began with the onset of the recession 18 months ago.

Handle declined from $1.042 billion to $917 million, while purses declined from $70.7 million to $63.6 million. Race days were down 8 percent, from 376 days in January last year to 346 days in January this year.

Several factors other than the ongoing recession influenced the numbers, including a dispute between a simulcast-marketing company and a collection of racing sites in seven states on the East Coast that deprived bettors at the sites of the signals from Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, and Fair Grounds for most of the month. The dispute was settled on Jan. 22.

The decline in race dates is associated with shorter race weeks at Turfway Park in Kentucky and a winter break at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, which raced during January last year.

Racing executives have expressed hope over the past several months that the handle drops would level off while race dates continued to decline. If that were the case, the racing industry would be better off because racetracks would be using the same dollars to cover fewer expenses, but the January figures indicate that customers continue to pull back their spending on races.

Handle in 2009 declined 9.9 percent to its lowest level since 1996, and handle has declined 16.3 percent since the end of 2007, according to Equibase figures.