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U.S. betting up significantly for first time in nearly 4 years

Betting in the United States on horse racing rose in December, the first significant increase in 46 months.

According to Equibase, the $800 million wagered in December 2011 was 17.88 percent more than the $679 million bet in December 2010.

That's the first major year-over-year increase since February 2008, according to Equibase. (In 2009, when the Breeders' Cup was run in November, there was an increase of 1.42 percent in year-over-year wagering in November 2009, when compared to November 2008. The 2008 Breeders' Cup was run in October.)

One big factor was that New York City Off-Track Betting closed Dec. 7, 2010, contributing to an extra-low month that year, said Alex Waldrop, executive director the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. There also were 34 more days of racing in 2011 than in 2010, when bad winter weather forced racetracks to close.

It's unclear how much might be coming from an improved economy, but Waldrop said some tracks have shown marked improvement, including Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky, Santa Anita in California and Gulfstream in Florida.

"One month is not a trend, but it would appear that the economy is beginning to turn in our favor," Waldrop said.

Purses also were higher in December 2011. The prize money for racing hit almost $70 million, up 23.58 percent from the same month the year before.

Florida switched December racing from Calder to Gulfstream, which paid higher purses, Waldrop said.

The December jump in wagering helped mitigate the continuing downward trend in wagering. Year to date, betting fell an additional 5.65 percent to $10.77 billion, the lowest level in the United States since 1995, according to figures in The Jockey Club's Fact Book. In 2010, more than $11.4 billion was wagered.

New York City OTB handled about $1 billion in bets annually, Waldrop said, but wasn't that profitable for the racetracks because of low prices paid for their signals. New York tracks have since picked up the slack, and next year's figures may show further improvement, he said.

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