At the same time, purses dropped off from $3.1 million to $2.5 million.
Last year, the combined handle, or the total amount of betting, at Plainridge was $45 million, track spokesman Bill Ryan said.
But gambling on harness racing nationally is up, according to Leary.
For the year ending April 8, $458 million was bet at the 38 US Trotting Association member tracks and 72 fairgrounds, up 6 percent from the same period a year earlier.
While the increased wagering cannot all be attributed to slot and casino money bolstering purses, Leary said, racetracks exist in a cycle of money following money.
Slot and casino revenues boost prize money at racetracks, luring more horses, leading to larger fields, better odds, and more betting.
Meanwhile, horsemen in Massachusetts say they are barely scraping by.
Perpall, president of the 250-member Harness Horsemen’s Association of New England, has cut what used to be a 20-horse stable down to eight.
Most of the grooms, trainers, drivers, and owners at Plainridge have part- or full-time jobs out of necessity, he said.
Standing outside the paddock where horses were being prepared for their qualifying runs last week, Perpall pointed out two drivers exiting the track.
“This one owns the nursery up the road,” he said. “That fellow ahead of him is a milkman. They do this because they love it.”
One of the few full-time horsemen at Plainridge is Jim Hardy, last year’s leading trainer and a driver.
Decked out in green-and-white silks with a matching helmet, the North Attleborough resident showed off his $6,000 racing bike, an aerodynamic cart made of aluminum with state-of-the-art bearings and disc wheels.
Hardy has a stable of 10 horses at Plainridge, and said he would like to add a few more once the season gets underway. He employs a groom, Mike Tracey, and assistant trainer, Jolene Andrews, who also drives as a member of the New England Amateur Harness Drivers Club.
Hardy has raced at Plainridge since the track opened.
“It’s been a struggle,” he said. “I have a lot of good owners behind me. They love the horses. They love coming down and watching them race. I keep looking down at the light at the end of the tunnel. I hope we can get there. If not? Then we have to pack up and move. Get out of the business.”
With that, Hardy left the paddock with 11-year-old Hurricane Emily hitched to a wood-and-metal training bike that looked more 19th century than 21st, trying to pace another mile fast enough to qualify for another racing season, one that he hopes will not be their last at Plainridge.
Opening day’s first post time is 1 p.m.
Jose Martinez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.