All Bets Are Off! Racing Stumbles Amid Weak Economy

Betting is down at New York's horse tracks and Off-Track Betting parlors this year amid the weak economy.

The amount of money bet on races, called handle, is down 4 percent to $527 million through October at New York's thoroughbred and harness tracks compared to the same period last year. That was driven largely by a 4 percent drop at New York's three thoroughbred tracks, Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga, as well as decreases at seven of eight harness tracks, according to figures from the state Racing and Wagering Board.

Handle at OTBs dropped 6 percent over the same period to $1.58 billion. Bets at New York City OTB, which accounts for more than half the OTB handle statewide, dropped by 8 percent, according to the board.

Horse racing has been struggling for years as casinos and Internet gambling sites proliferate. But gambling operations around the nation have suffered this year. Just this week, the American Gaming Association, an industry group, reported that casino revenue was down nationwide by 4.6 percent in the third quarter compared with last year.

Industry officials believe people are less inclined to wager after the one-two punch of high gasoline prices this summer and the financial meltdown this fall.

"There's no doubt that the economy is a major factor in this," said state racing board chairman John Sabini.

"I don't think New York is necessarily at fault," he said. "This is a nationwide problem."

Still, the revenue drop means New York state and its local governments must deal with a smaller revenue stream from gambling when they can least afford it. For instance, as they tighten their belts, state officials are looking at reduced pari-mutuel tax collections and counties must brace for smaller shares from local OTBs.

"Sure, there's a concern," said Mark LaVigne, spokesman for the New York Association of Counties. "We don't want to lose any stream of revenue, especially a stream that isn't the property tax."

One oddity is that even as harness tracks post losses in on-track handle, they are reporting higher revenue from their onsite video lottery terminals, or VLTs. The VLTs were introduced in recent years to boost state education revenue while shoring up business at the harness tracks.

VLT revenues were up April-through-October compared to 2007 for all harness tracks except Monticello Raceway. Gambling industry analysts believe that the racinos, particularly Yonkers, siphoned business from full-blown casinos in Atlantic City and in Connecticut.

The lone harness track to post a gain in handle over the period was Saratoga Gaming and Racetrack, with an increase of less than 1 percent. Director of racing operations John Matarazzo said they have been able to keep handle from declining through marketing and the introduction of Sunday racing. He said it also helps to be located in an area famous for horse racing and loaded with fans.

"We have a really, really strong local market," he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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