By Bill Finley
According to figures released Tuesday by Equibase, through the first three-quarters of 2021 wagering on U.S. horse racing is up 13.8% over 2020 totals. At the end of September, $9,498,141,414 had been wagered on the sport, a sizeable increase over the comparable figure of 2020 when $8,346,543,422 had been bet.
With a strong final quarter, the amount bet on U.S. racing for the year could top $12 billion. That would be the most bet during a year since $11.4 billion was wagered in 2010.
The record for most wagered in a year was set in 2003, when $15.18 billion was bet.
The gains in 2021 were achieved despite a decline of 12.32% in September and a 23.98% decrease in the category of average wagering per race day. The September numbers were skewed by the date of last year's GI Kentucky Derby, which was rescheduled due to the pandemic and held in September. The shift in the date of the Derby also led to a 2.18% decline in handle during the third quarter.
Because of COVID-19-related shutdowns, the 2021 and 2020 numbers may not line up perfectly, but there is still plenty of evidence that wagering on the sport has been growing. Equibase also released figures comparing numbers in 2021 to the pre-COVID numbers of 2019, which also point to an upward tick in wagering. The year-to-date handle figures comparing 2021 to 2019 show a 10.52% increase, including a 10.23% increase during the third quarter and a 13.71% increase during September.
In another telling statistic, when comparing 2021 to 2019 year-to-date figures, handle has risen 21.32% in the category of average wagering per race day.
It is believed that the sport may have picked up a significant amount of new customers during the early days of the pandemic in 2020 when it was among the only betting vehicles available while the major sports were shut down.
Purses have also increased during 2021. So far this year, the average amount of purses paid out per day is $274,998, which is a 9.65% increase over 2020 totals and an 8.14% increase over 2019.
Racing did not do nearly as well when it comes to the category of average field size. The number so far for 2021 is 7.16 starters per race, down from 7.87 in 2020 for a decline of 7.67%. That also represents a 1.63% decline from 2019. The 7.16 starters per race represents the lowest number in that category since the Jockey Club began keeping records in 1950.