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US Thoroughbred Horse Racing Suffers Only Slight Handle Decline In 2020

James Murphy
by in Horses on
  • Total handle on U.S. Thoroughbred races was down only 1% in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The total handle of $10.93 billion represented the second yearly drop after four years of marginal improvement.
  • The number of races held in 2020 was 27,200–easily the lowest in the modern era.

2020 was a bizarre year for just about everyone but no industry experienced a stranger run through the Coronavirus ravaged 12 month period than the US horse racing industry. Racing meets were cancelled and postponed throughout the industry, often based on arbitrary if not pointless criteria. As a result, the total number of races held in 2020 was just 27,200–that’s nearly 10,000 fewer than in 2019 when 36,207 races were run.

When races were run, fans were not in attendance. This was true for not only the marquee events like the Breeders’ Cup and Kentucky Derby but also for daily racing cards at tracks all over North America. Despite the challenges, however, the racing industry had a lot going for it during the pandemic. While it took most of the major ‘stick and ball’ sports months to resume play horse racing was able to return to action fairly quickly. As a result, they became one of the few betting options for not only horse players but sports bettors.

For that reason, the industry has to generally be pleased with their revenue numbers despite the pandemic. The average handle per race was a record $394,413 despite running nearly 10,000 fewer races than the previous year. In 2019, the average handle per race was $304,743. Overall, the all sources handle of $10.93 billion represented a 1% drop from 2019’s revenues. The total purses distributed dropped precipitously declining 25.5 percent. The average purse size held up better dropping by only 2.7 percent, from a record $32,257 last year to $31,400 this year. Since many North American tracks subsidize their horse racing purses with casino revenues the closure of the gaming industry for months at a time during the pandemic definitely hit hard.

The final quarter of 2020 saw record wagering numbers. Much of this was due to the completely jumbled schedule of major stakes races but even among daily race cards there was more betting interest. According to Equibase numbers total handle on U.S. races in Q4 was up 5.6 percent, despite an 11.1 percent drop in races held. December–usually a ‘dead month’ in most years experinced a 6.2 percent jump in total handle on U.S. races in December despite there being 7.4 percent fewer races run.

Perhaps the strangest outcome of the 2020 season was the completely negligible impact of the absence of fans and in turn on-track betting. It’s no secret that mobile and remote betting options are the wave of the future but that was clearly demonstrated during the past 365 days. It also presents a curious scenario–would it be more cost effective for the industry to run all but the major race cards without fans?

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