Thoroughbred racing took a huge financial hit in 2009, with wagering falling almost 10 percent, according to the latest indicators released Wednesday.
Wagering on U.S. races fell $1.3 billion last year, on top of 2008's $1 billion drop.
That puts wagering in 2009 at about $12.3 billion, the lowest level since 1996. In 2008, $13.65 billion was bet on U.S. Thoroughbred races, according to Equibase.
"The overall economy was our big problem in 2009," said Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
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"It's premature to speculate on what other factors may have impacted our business. We need to get beyond this tough economic time and look carefully at all the things we can do to build our business, to rebuild handle now in horse racing."
Racing handle, the total amount wagered, peaked at $15.2 billion in 2003, but the latest numbers show the losses accelerating.
The decline in betting came despite major industry efforts to win back fans after the deaths of Eight Belles and Barbaro tarnished racing's public image.
The drop in 2008 was blamed in part on disputes over how to split revenue from advance-deposit wagering, which cut off some wagering. Those disputes have now been resolved. ADW is the fastest growing segment of the industry, but it apparently wasn't enough to spur overall betting.
Chris Scherf, executive vice president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, said it is clear the economy isn't the only problem.
"The year's decrease was not unexpected in the wake of the financial crisis in the U.S., but no one should discount the trend as solely reflective of the recession," Scherf said. "In a year when racing was blessed with brilliant racing, featuring a storybook Kentucky Derby and Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, it is clear the sport still can stir great public interest and emotion. The 2009 handle figures, however, starkly illustrate a worrisome decline in the allure of the parimutuel wagering product, as least as currently constituted on a national basis."
Wagering in December fell 8.74 percent to $749 million, down $71 million from December 2008.
Days of racing fell slightly for the year as well, to 5,934 in 2009 from 6,093 in 2008.
U.S. purses also fell for the month and for the year. For December, purses were down 2.3 percent to $58.7 million. For the year, purses were down 5.59 percent to $1.09 billion.