By Matt Hegarty
Wagering on U.S. races soared nearly 18 percent in December
2011, compared to the same December last year, according to figures released by
Equibase on Thursday, a stunning monthly turnaround for an industry that has
weathered nearly four years of stubborn, protracted declines in its key
The gain – which was partly attributable to an earlier
opening at Gulfstream Park in Florida – outpaced a 10 percent jump in live race
dates during the month, and it contributed to a 23.6 percent gain in purses
distributed. It was by far the largest monthly gain in handle for U.S.
racetracks since Equibase, the racing industry’s data supplier, began tracking
the figures more than five years ago, before the late-2008 recession sent an
already struggling industry reeling. According to Equibase, it was the first
month-over-month gain in handle since February 2008.
In addition, the gain ate into the steady month-to-month
erosion of racing’s handle figure for the 2011 calendar year, though the final
figures remained down compared to 2010. For the 12 months ended in December,
wagering on U.S. races declined 5.65 percent, to $10.77 billion, the lowest
level of annual handle since 1995, unadjusted for inflation.
Still, purses, which are heavily subsidized by slot-machine
revenues in many states, rose 2.89 percent for the year, to $1.05 billion, the
first annual increase since 2007, Equibase said. Race dates declined by 3.2
percent, to 5,298.
In addition to the 10 percent jump in race dates, several
factors contributed to the December surge, including the opening of Gulfstream
Park on Dec. 3. Gulfstream, which is one of the most popular winter signals in
the United States, had previously opened in January, but the track opened one
month earlier this year, replacing live race dates at Calder Race Course, which
draws far less in wagers per day than Gulfstream.
In addition, at the beginning of December 2010, New York
City Off-Track Betting Corporation abruptly closed its doors, leading to a
significant drop-off in handle as the company’s regular customers adjusted to
the shutdown. Also, weather in December 2011 was milder than the December
weather on both the East and West Coasts in December 2010, contributing to the
jump in race dates.
For December 2011, handle was $880.6 million, up from $679.2
million in December 2010, according to the figures. Purses were up from $56.5
million to $69.9 million, while race dates jumped from 314 in December 2010, to
348 in December 2011.
Total wagering on U.S. races hit its high in 2003, at $15.2
billion. In the next four years, handle hovered around the $15 billion mark,
before suffering declines of 7.2 percent, 9.9 percent, and 7.3 percent in 2008,
2009, and 2010, respectively. Including the 2011 figures, handle still remains
28.9 percent lower than the 2003 figure, unadjusted for inflation.