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Horse race betting plummets

Jan 13, 2009 5:10 PM
Staff & Wire Reports |

Pari-mutuel horse race wagering in the United States declined 7.2 percent in 2008, the lowest total in 10 years.

Underscored by a 20.3 percent decline in December, the total amount bet on U.S. and Canadian races was $13.670 billion last year, down from $14.723 billion in 2007.

Although December pari-mutuel figures in Nevada haven’t yet been posted, the decline appears to be steeper in the state’s race books.

For the 12 month period from Dec. 2007 to Nov. 2008, Nevada race books saw their pari-mutuel handle decline 13.1 percent to $495.8 million. (Race books retained 16.6 percent of the handle or $82.3 million.)

As the amount bet in Nevada race books has declined, so has the state’s contribution to the total amount bet.

The state’s handle of $495.8 million is about 3.6 percent of the total U.S. handle. Ten years ago, the state’s race books contributed $737 million or about 5.6 percent of the $13.115 billion total handle.

Most of the drop-off in race betting is attributed to the economic recession, but turmoil in the industry has alienated many bettors, who often turn to off-shore bookmakers.

The "turmoil" includes disputes between race tracks and advance deposit wagering entities that operate Internet, telephone and mobile device betting platforms.

"I have no doubt the account wagering debacle was harmful to our business at the worst possible time," said Christopher Scherf, executive director of the Thoroughbred Racing Association. "The first voice we need to listen to are the bettors. If we are not meeting their needs, and obviously we are not, we need to figure out ways to address those."

Scherf added that catering to bettors should at least get equal attention as "other issues" that seem to preoccupy the industry, such as racing surfaces, jockey safety, equine wellbeing and medication.

Sweetening the pot for horse players may attract new bettors, as well as defectors who have taken their action to online betting sites.

"A lot of the bigger bettors are betting offshore, where they are getting a rebate, but not betting in the pools," said Jeff Platt, president of the Horseplayers Association of North America. "This is definitely happening."

Despite the downturn in the pari-mutuel industry, there was some good news in 2008: Handle increased at Monmouth Park, Louisiana Downs, Hawthorne Racetrack and Tampa Bay Downs.

The common thread among those tracks was a widely distributed signal, larger field sizes and dirt tracks as opposed to synthetic surfaces.