The Week in Review: Handle Falls Sharply Again in February… What's Going On?

Betting slips | Coglianese

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Figures released last week by Equibase showed that U.S. handle declined by 5.21% in February. This comes after handle declined by 7.19% in January. For the year, that's a drop off of 6.22% and, if those numbers hold up throughout the year, total handle will be off by $750 million and the year-over-year percentage decline will be the worst the sport has suffered since 2010.

And it's not just that racing has gotten off to a slow, reversible start this year when it comes to wagering. Whatever is going on, it started in October. Handle was up 2.68% in September and up 1.78% through the third quarter of 2022. Then the numbers took off in another direction and they haven't stopped falling since. Handle was off 4.93% in October, 4.47% in November and 7.52% in December.

Taking a look at the usual factors that affect handle doesn't yield any obvious answers. The average field size so far this year has been 7.66 horses per race, almost identical to the 2022 number, which was 7.67. The total number of races run has actually gone up, from 4,345 to 4,508. But the average amount wagered per racing day is off 8.35%.

This is a mystery not easily solved, but the best guess is that it has something to do with the amount being bet by the Computer Assisted Wagering (CAW) players who received huge rebates from betting outlets like Elite Turf Club, which caters to the biggest bettors in the world. Had something happened to impact the amount they wager that would explain the recent declines?

Maury Wolff, who was a professional horseplayer before retiring and studies betting trends, speculated that some tracks may have raised the host fees they charge Elite and other ADWs. The signal fee is the percentage of every dollar of handle that an ADW or simulcast outlet must pay the host track for the right to wager on that track's races. If host fees go up, the rebates the ADW can offer its players will likely have to drop. A smaller rebate would lead to a CAW player betting less. Information on how much is bet at places like Elite and how much they pay in host fees is a carefully guarded secret.

“There is a possible explanation, but you'll never get to the bottom of it,” Wolff said. “What are racetracks doing when it comes to signal fees? An unreal amount of the total amount bet is driven by Elite and if there have been changes to signal fees, that would reduce handle at Elite. Have signal fees gone up to the shops, and when you are talking about the shops you are talking about Elite? I would be very suspicious of that. They are so much the driver now. Anything that affects them is going to be an earthquake to the business. That strikes me as a possibility.”

But Wolff admitted that his theory amounts to only an educated guess.

“But these are suspicions and suspicions are not facts,” he said.

What's the answer? We're not sure. Neither were a handful of other experts I consulted. But this is something to keep an eye on. One of the good news stories in racing over the last few years is that handle has more than held its own and done so despite the advent of legalized sports betting outside of Nevada. Handle was up by 11.8% in 2021 and, despite the decline over the last three months, down less than 1% in 2022. It looks like that's not going to be the case in 2023, which is off to an inauspicious start.

Why You Should Bet on Hawthorne

It's not easy being Hawthorne Race Course. Though a casino is on its way, as of now, they get no additional funding from slots, etc., and offer purses that are far lower than those found at the top-tier tracks. Because they are obligated to run a harness meet, Hawthorne can offer only a 68-day Thoroughbred meet that ends Sept. 3. Illinois racing misses Arlington Park.

But you can't say that Hawthorne isn't trying. Hoping to attract more business at the current meet, which began Mar. 5, the takeout on win, place and show bets has been slashed to 12%. When it comes to straight wagers, there's no better deal in the sport.

“You have to be aggressive with takeout sometimes,” said Hawthorne Racing Analyst Jim Miller. “Minor drops are always welcome, but we wanted to be really aggressive. Our takeout in the past on these wagers was 17%, so to drop five percentage points to 12% is very significant. We wanted to make a splash and we want to put out a product that people will want to bet on. We want people to focus on our races. We know handle will have to increase to cover what we are losing in commissions with the lower takeout, but in first couple of days of racing we have seen that handle has increased and we are hopeful we will have a very good year.”

Hawthorne is also thinking out of the box when it comes to its racing schedule. They will not race on Saturdays in March, April or May, going with a two-day week that includes racing only on Thursdays and Sundays.

“What we're doing is smart,” Miller said. “Here's a great example. Normally, our opening day would have been last Saturday. That happened to be the same day that you had three major racetracks with Derby preps and three or four other stakes on the card. These are great circuits that people want to watch. You want to see what's going on at Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Santa Anita. We knew that if we threw our card out on that day, we wouldn't handle anymore than $600,000. By shifting that card to Thursday, we handled $1.2 million and that's because there's not as much competition and there is more exposure. We want to put our product out there where the gamblers can see it and see all that we have to offer and see that we are offering a 12% takeout on win, place and show wagers.”

For good reason, horseplayers love to complain about how high the takeout is in racing. The best way to fight back is to support tracks like Hawthorne when they go out of their way to offer the customer a better deal.

Tapit Trice Did Just Fine in the Tampa Bay Derby

Perhaps you were expecting Tapit Trice (Tapit) to win the GII Tampa Bay Derby in a cakewalk. The expectations were high for the grey 3-year-old and they should have been. By Tapit, trained by Todd Pletcher and a $1.3-million yearling purchase at Keeneland September, he forced his way into the conversation for the GI Kentucky Derby with an impressive eight-length win in an allowance race at Gulfstream. He was sent off at 1-2 in the Tampa Bay Derby for a reason, because he looked much better than everyone else on paper.

But nothing came easily for Tapit Trice in his two-length win. He was 11th of 12 down the backstretch and looked beaten when he was still ninth on the far turn and was being hard ridden by Luis Saez. But he kept grinding away and managed to draw clear in the final sixteenth. His Beyer figure, an 88, was nothing to get excited about.

Was his Tampa Bay Derby performance good enough to win the Derby? No. But that doesn't mean he can't win the Derby. At Tampa, he ran like a horse who is still figuring things out. There's one more race to go, the GI Toyota Blue Grass S., and eight weeks to go before he'll get into the starting gate for the Derby for the Hall of Famer Pletcher. Look for a better, more focused horse next time. He should be fine.

The weekend also included a big win by GI Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Oath (Arrogate) in the GII Azeri S. at Oaklawn. Beating a quality filly in Clairiere (Curlin) by 2 3/4 lengths, she couldn't have looked better. It was her first win since the Oaks.

Before the race, trainer Wayne Lukas said his goal for the year was to win an Eclipse Award with Secret Oath. With Nest (Curlin), last year's 3-year-old filly champion, back for another year, that won't be easy. But Secret Oath could not have gotten the year off to a better start.

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