Handle Inches Up, Purses Drop Slightly

By Tom LaMarra
Despite more than 2,300 fewer races compared with 2014, commingled pari-mutuel handle on United States races inched up 1.18% to $10,676,223,640 in 2015. It is the first year-over-year increase since 2012.

Meanwhile, U.S. purses in 2015 fell 1.62% to $1,093,667,566 from $1,111,714,495 in 2014, according to the Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators released by Equibase Jan. 5.

December was strong wagering-wise with an 8.09% gain versus December 2014, when handle was down 9.07% from the same month in 2013. For the month, $694,167,064 was wagered on 2,365 races versus $642,209,289 bet on 2,427 races in December 2014.

With 2,334 fewer races in 2015 compared with 2014, average handle per race was up 7.24% to $274,157 from $255,626 in 2014. Though the number of U.S. races and total starts last year were down from 2014, the average number of horses per race in 2015 increased 1.81% to 7.85 from 7.71.

"These are positive trends and a reflection of the fact that our sport continues to resonate with customers across North America and around the world when we present a competitive and compelling product," said Alex Waldrop, president and chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

Purses for 2015, though down from the year before, averaged $28,084 per race, up 4.27% from $26,933 in 2014. The increase in average was aided by a 5.65% drop in the number of races from 41,276 in 2014 to 38,942 last year.

"These wagering statistics could be viewed as a mixed bag, as on the one hand supply is meeting demand as far as races offered to our customers. Handle and field size are up as compared to 2014, but in order to achieve that, racing opportunities and gross purses for owners had to be reduced," said Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association president Dan Metzger. "One would assume the increase in handle led to an increase in purse money generated. This increase in purse money from handle may be offsetting some of the reduction in total purses due to fewer races being conducted, thereby causing the average purse per race to increase."

Metzger hopes the trend of fewer races with better purses helps the sport long-term.

"We believe in order for the sport to reverse the recent downward trends in handle, it must offer a product its customers want," Metzger said. "That leads to fewer racing opportunities and purses available to owners in the short term, but it should increase average and total purses in the future."

The bump in total handle on Thoroughbred races last year doesn't figure to end ongoing public discussions among horseplayers about the need for comprehensive pari-mutuel takeout reductions to perhaps bring consistent, long-term growth in light of competition from other forms of gambling. There is also debate in the industry over whether substantial contraction in the number of horses, races, and racetracks is a positive for the business.

Frank Angst contributed to this story.