Handle It

Thoroughbred horse racing saw a quarter of its race days eliminated in 2020 because of precautions and restrictions put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Ever-resilient bettors, however, supported the available product as best they could. While thoroughbred owners saw a decline in purses that mirrored the loss of race days.

In this difficult year, racing business fared well compared with other sports, thanks to wagering technology. Specifically Advanced-Deposit Wagering, which allowed bettors to continue to wager on races from home while tracks, track simulcast centers, and Off-Track Betting outlets closed to fans.

Despite a 25% decline in race days, total wagering on U.S. races in 2020 reached $10.9 billion dollars. This was less than 1% short of matching the 2019 total, according to Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators released January 5th.

While tracks were able to conduct live race days without fans this year, many also had to completely halt their race schedules — at least for parts of their meets. This led to a 25% decline in race days to 3,302 and a 23% decline in total races to 27,700.

Purses closely mirrored the declines in race days and total races as they were off 25% to $869.8 million in 2020. Purses also were impacted by closings of facilities like casinos that commit revenues to purse funds.

Despite those limitations, purses for available racing were fairly steady. The average race card in 2019 offered purses of $263,937 dollars and the average race offered a purse of $32,257. Those numbers saw small declines in 2020 to $263,408 (down 0.2%) and $31,400 (down 2.7%), respectively.

While available racing largely maintained purses, the loss in total purses in conjunction with reduced racing, proved challenging for owners, trainers, and other participants.

The $869.8 million in total purses is the lowest since 1997 and that’s not factoring in inflation.

Horsemen supported the available race days as average field size improved 5.5% to 7.94.

Possibly signaling a move in the right direction, fourth quarter numbers outperformed the numbers for the year as wagering on U.S. races was up 5.6% ($2,576,411,336) compared with the final three months of 2019 and purses ($240,537,331) were only down 12%, mirroring the 13% decline in race days and 11% decline in total races.

Here’s hoping we can (even with restrictions) get back in the stands and help the On-Track betting handle get back to what it once was.

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