03/04/2010 12:00AM

Winter weather batters U.S. handle

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Brutal winter weather and a brutal economy has translated into brutal betting figures on Thoroughbred racing in the U.S.

According to figures released Wednesday by Equibase, wagering on U.S. races in February fell 13 percent compared to the same month last year, from $999.8 million to $869.8 million. The decline followed a 12 percent drop in betting figures for January, and a nearly 10 percent drop for all of 2009.

Weather was an influential factor on the figures. In February, racetracks along the East Coast were continually wracked by winter storms, causing numerous cancellations of live race cards and complicating travel to offtrack betting sites. In addition, drainage problems affecting Santa Anita's synthetic surface during heavy February rains caused two Saturday cancellations.

In total, racing dates in February declined 17 percent, from 359 in February last year to 298 this year. Though cancellations were more frequent in February of this year than last year, much of the decline is related to shorter race weeks at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky and the lack of any live racing in February at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia.

Purses declined at a similar rate to handle, down 13.4 percent, from $65.8 million during February last year to $57 million this year.

Including the figures from January, handle is down 12.5 percent for the first two months of 2010 compared to the first two months of 2009, from $2.04 billion last year to $1.79 billion this year. Purses have declined 11.7 percent, from $136.5 million to $120.5 million.

Also for the year, race days have declined 12.4 percent, from 735 to 644. Most racing officials expect race dates to dramatically decline over the next several years because of signficant contractions in the foal crop.

In February 2008, wagering was $1.13 billion, meaning wagering in February of this year was down 23.1 percent compared to wagering two years ago.