by Tom LaMarra
Rising handle figures are welcome good news
Over three-quarters of the way through 2023, the Standardbred industry in the United States is on track to register a slight increase in total pari-mutuel handle for the year, a welcome development given an 8.33-percent drop in 2022 from 2021 for a full 12 months.
As of Oct. 1, total handle on U.S. harness races stood at $1.219 billion, up 4.28 percent from the same period in 2022, according to USTA economic indicators. That figure is about $268 million shy of the final 2022 number of $1.487 billion, with the two leading tracks by nightly handle—the Meadowlands and Hawthorne Race Course—scheduled to run a combined 61 programs from October through December.
The increase through the first nine months of the year came despite a 3.50-percent decrease in race days (91) from January through September in 2022; this year was without the traditional four-month winter meet at Pompano Park. The other handle economic indicators—per race and per betting interest—were both up through Oct. 1, as were total purses, which stood at $384.2 million (a 1.82-percent increase).
Roughly 16 percent of total U.S. handle through September was generated by the Meadowlands, based on reported wagering numbers. Total handle for 2022, though down from 2021, was 4.37 percent higher than the 2019 figure of $1.424 billion.
Certain racetracks and markets have had a solid 2023. Earlier this year, Bally’s Dover reported an 18-percent increase in wagering on the live product for its 2022-23 meet, the bulk of which was held this calendar year. More recently, Batavia Downs said wagering on the local product for the first half of its 2023 summer-fall meet was up 57 percent from the comparable period in 2022. At Ocean Downs, total handle increased almost 10 percent from 2022 despite a 3.5-percent drop in on-track bets.
On the Thoroughbred side, total commingled handle on U.S. races in 2022 was $12.1 billion, down 0.87 percent from 2021, according to statistics compiled by Equibase. For the first eight months of 2023, total handle was down 4.09 percent with a 4.47-percent reduction in racing days (126). Saratoga Race Course, which last year handled $878 million on its product, this summer was down roughly $80 million from 2022 in large part due to persistent rain that forced 65 races off the turf.
At the same point in 2022, year-to-date U.S. handle was up 0.24 percent over 38 more race days from the comparable period in 2021. So, it can be estimated that total wagering this year will be similar to that of 2022.
Looking ahead, harness racing is poised for growth, at least in terms of racing opportunities and purse money.
In Kentucky, the new Cumberland Run racetrack and historical horse racing (HHR) facility was scheduled for 12 live programs. But, as was the case with Oak Grove, it seems likely that number will gradually increase.
During the September meeting of the Illinois Racing Board (IRB), Hawthorne officials expressed optimism that not only would construction of a casino get underway in 2024, but also that financing for a second track in the Chicago metropolitan area could be obtained. If so, there would be year-round harness racing in Illinois once again. According to IRB statistics, Standardbred purses in Illinois in 2022 totaled $9.2 million, the highest since 2015 ($11.3 million), the final year of racing at Balmoral Park and Maywood Park.
In Virginia, Shenandoah Downs this year added a 14-day spring meet to go along with its regular 14-day fall meet. With the continued expansion of HHR in the state, there have been rumblings—accurate or not—that a new HHR facility with a harness track eventually could be built to accommodate additional racing days, something that is desired by Standardbred interests.
HHR has become a primary driver of purses in the states that offer it, but it also is lucrative for the licensees. During a September meeting of the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority, at which a track operator noted that video lottery terminal revenue in the state is dedicated to purses but not for racetrack operations, it was noted that, in 2022, HHR generated $424 million for operators in Kentucky and $318 million in Virginia.
With the expansion of sports betting in the U.S. on top of casino-style gambling, it’s hard to forecast any substantial growth in pari-mutuel handle given its current across-the-board takeout structure. Ideally, there would be continued growth from pari-mutuel wagering to produce meaningful contributions to purse accounts from a dedicated revenue source for racing. HB
Tom LaMarra has worked as a writer, columnist and editor for newspapers, magazines and websites in the racing industry, both Thoroughbred and Standardbred, for more than 25 years. He currently is director of communications and backstretch services for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the USTA. To comment on this column, email us at email@example.com.