If only a 17.88% increase in handle in December was an apples to apples increase compared with December 2010.
First off, race days increased 10% which should mean an approximate gain of 10%. Then you have the closing of the NYOTBs in December 2010 (the OTB player has by now found an alternative), and of course Gulfstream instead of Calder had to help handle numbers.
Other factors to think about is the increased takeout in California which has a negative effect on handle overall, but then again, many tracks operating in December had lowered takeout on a few bets (like Hawthorne, Tampa Bay and Charles Town). However, signal fees have trended up from a year ago as well, which should decrease handle.
If I remember correctly, weather was pretty ugly in December and January last year causing quite a few cancellations (but that is reflective in the amount of racing dates).
And of course, the North American has improved ever so slightly.
One more thing. The US poker ban in April should have had a very positive effect on handle, however, because poker is perceived as beatable and horse racing is not, the amount of poker players horse racing was able to lure in has probably been very minuscule.
All in all, the December numbers look to me at best to be a wash over last year. Now, this is still an improvement over the 4 year huge slide we've seen, and perhaps a sign that the industry has bottomed out. But if it stays status quo as far as pricing is concerned, even a buoyant economy will mean very little when it comes to handle increases in the future.
The reality is that the new blood the game desperately needs will not be cultivated the same way the current Horseplayer was (years of going to the track with mom and dad, etc.). The new player will be attracted to the game if and only if the game is perceived as beatable by at least a few. Tomorrow's player will not be required to go the track to become a regular and the industry has to understand this.
Lower takeout across the board and betting exchanges are a must if the industry is to become relevant again.