Betting Handle Steady Despite Challenges, Fewer Races in 2020

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Duopoly winning the American Oaks on Dec. 26 at Santa Anita Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

While racing saw a quarter of its race days eliminated in 2020 because of precautions and restrictions put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, bettors supported the available product while owners saw a decline in purses that mirrored the loss of race days.

In a difficult year racing business fared well compared with other sports thanks to wagering technology, specifically advanced-deposit wagering, which allowed bettors to continue to wager on races from home while tracks, track simulcast centers, and off-track betting outlets closed to fans. Despite a 25% decline in race days, total wagering on U.S. races in 2020 at $10.9 billion fell less than 1% short of matching 2019 according to Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators released Jan. 5 by Equibase.

Just the latest example of that support came on one of the final race days of the year when bettors wagered $23,003,159 on the Dec. 26 Santa Anita Park card, a record for the track’s opening day for its winter-spring meet.

Grade 1 La Brea Stakes Dec. 26 at Santa Anita. (Eclipse Sportswire)

“We want to thank our fans, owners, trainers, jockeys, and other stakeholders for supporting our racing program and contributing to a strong opening day,” said Nate Newby, senior vice president and general manager of Santa Anita. “This has been a difficult year for a lot of people and we are happy to be able to provide world class racing for those watching and playing the races from home.

“We can’t wait to welcome our fans and our employees back to ‘The Great Race Place’ when protocols allow everyone to enjoy our tremendous sport in person. In the meantime, we are thankful to be able to operate as we are currently.”

Fans bet nearly 33% more on the available race days in 2020 as the average wagering per race day surpassed $3.3 million.

While tracks were able to conduct live race days without fans this year, many also had to completely halt their race schedules — at least for parts of their meets. This led to a 25% decline in race days to 3,302 and a 23% decline in total races to 27,700.

Purses closely mirrored the declines in race days and total races as they were off 25% to $869.8 million in 2020. Purses also were impacted by closings of facilities like casinos that commit revenues to purse funds and continued impact is expected as handle has shifted to ADW, which generally results in a smaller percentage of revenues going to purse funds and racetracks because the ADW companies receive a share of that money.

Despite those business model concerns over the larger percentage of money being wagered through ADWs as opposed to on-track, and continued limitations at casinos, purses for available racing were fairly steady. The average race card in 2019 offered purses of $263,937 and the average race offered a purse of $32,257. Those numbers saw small declines in 2020 to $263,408 (down 0.2%) and $31,400 (down 2.7%), respectively.

While available racing largely maintained purses, the loss in total purses tied to reduced racing proved challenging for owners, trainers, and other participants. The $869.8 million in total purses is the lowest since 1997 and that’s not factoring in inflation.

Horsemen supported the available race days as average field size improved 5.5% to 7.94.

Possibly signaling a move in the right direction, fourth quarter numbers outperformed the numbers for the year as wagering on U.S. races was up 5.6% ($2,576,411,336) compared with the final three months of 2019 and purses ($240,537,331) were only down 12%, mirroring the 13% decline in race days and 11% decline in total races.

Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators

Year-End 2020

YTD 2020 vs. YTD 2019


YTD 2020

YTD 2019

% Change

Wagering on U.S. Races*




U.S. Purses




U.S. Race Days




U.S. Races




U.S. Starts




Average Field Size




Average Wagering Per Race Day




Average Purses Per Race Day




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