The US horse racing industry in 2021 enjoyed its best year in more than a decade, according to data released by Equibase on Wednesday.
More than $12.2 billion was wagered on races across the country last year. Not only was that an 11.9 percent increase from 2020’s total handle, it also marked the first time in more than a decade that betting exceeded $12 billion in a year.
Horse racing returned to its normal schedule in 2021 after COVID-19 impacted the sport in 2020. The Triple Crown races were run on their usual dates and in their traditional order.
Both race days (4,072) and the number of races (33,567) increased by more than 20 percent from the previous year. That was aided by the fact that many large tracks were able to run full meets in 2021.
Tom Rooney, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), said in a statement Wednesday that the industry showed its resiliency last year.
We concluded the year with significant growth in purses and total handle of more than $12 billion, the highest since 2009,” Rooney said. “We thank our customers for their ongoing support as their wagering dollars continue to fuel our industry.”
Purses, as Rooney noted, rose substantially. Horsemen competed for $1.18 billion, up more than $300 million or 35.8 percent from 2020.
US harness racing enjoyed even bigger year-to-year gains last year.
The US Trotting Association announced Thursday that bettors wagered $1.62 billion on harness races last year. That was a 39.5 percent jump from 2020.
Purses rose 44 percent to $437.9 million, with race days up 38.8 percent to 3,273.
When compared to 2019, there were 151 fewer race days across the country. Still, the handle increased by nearly $200 million, or 13.9 percent.
Big changes are in store for thoroughbred racing this year. A federal law that nationalizes drug and safety standards will take effect.
“As we turn the page to 2022, we look forward to the beginning of a new era for US Thoroughbred racing with the launch of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA), and an even greater focus on equine safety and welfare and the integrity of America’s oldest sport,” Rooney said in his Wednesday statement.
The new standards come as racing still makes headlines for horses dying and horsemen facing prison for doping.
However, some proponents are concerned if HISA will include all of the drug measures they sought.
Just before Christmas, months of discussions between the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority and the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) broke down. The talks ended without an agreement in place for USADA to oversee drug testing in the sport. The authority is a nine-member board that will be responsible for implementing the drug testing and track safety measures.
“While we desperately tried to reach an agreement to implement the program, without compromising our values, we have always said the passing of the legislation and the finalization of uniform, robust rules are huge victories for the horses and the equine industry… Though we are unsure what the future holds for USADA – if any – in this effort, we have offered to assist the Authority and others in the industry to ensure that the sport gets the program it needs and that the horses deserve,” USADA CEO Travis T. Tygart said in a statement.
Last week, Animal Wellness Action (AWA) wrote to both the authority and USADA imploring them to resume discussions. The group noted the federal law called for USADA’s involvement.
“It is critical for the lives of countless horses and the future of American horseracing that the HISA board secure a five-year contract with USADA and see that there is robust and effective enforcement of the national anti-doping rules,” Pacelle said in a statement Tuesday.