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Thoroughbred wagering slumps

Betting on Thoroughbred racing in North America dropped more than $1 billion last year, to less than $13.7 billion, the lowest level since 1998, according to figures released Tuesday.

The Jockey Club reported that wagering on U.S. races was down 7.16 percent, from more than $14.7 million in 2007. Betting for December was down 20.3 percent, or more than $200 million, to just over $820 million.

"The fourth quarter was an extremely challenging one due in large part to the worldwide economic slowdown and other internal factors," said Alex Waldrop, NTRA president and CEO, in a statement. He pointed out that December was hurt by an unusual calendar with 35 fewer total days of racing and fewer racing weekends to bet on.

Except for a slight increase in 2006, handle has been dropping steadily since it peaked at $15.2 billion in 2003, but this is by far the largest drop in both percentages and dollars, according to the Jockey Club's data.

Overall betting handle also was hurt by disputes between horsemen and racetracks over how to split revenue from advance-deposit wagering platforms such as online betting. Those disputes effectively cut off a lucrative portion of the betting market in several states, including Kentucky, for much of the year. Off-track betting accounts for almost 90 percent of total wagering.

Racing also has faced declining public support in the wake of several high-profile black eyes, such as the deaths of Barbaro and Eight Belles, and controversy over steroid use and Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown.

Other Thoroughbred racing economic indicators were also down: U.S. purses were down 1.33 percent, or more than $15 million, to $1.16 billion for the year, after falling 13.43 percent, or more than $9 million, for the month of December to $60 million.

The total number of racing days for the year dropped 1.18 percent, to 6,095.