01/08/2004 1:00AM

Business tumbles in Texas

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The three major racetracks in Texas each experienced declines in attendance and handle in 2003, according to records kept by the Texas Racing Commission.

Lone Star Park near Dallas, Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, and Retama Park near San Antonio handled a combined $440 million on their Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse races in 2003, down about 9 percent from $487 million in 2002.

Attendance for the year at the three tracks fell 4 percent, to a collective 2,144,734.

There were fewer race dates in Texas last year, with Retama racing 72 dates as opposed to 82 in 2002, which impacted handle figures. Still, the state's largest tracks, Lone Star and Sam Houston, raced the same number of dates in 2003 as 2002. Both were forced to cut purses during their Thoroughbreds meets in 2003.

"I'm not surprised at the declines," said Dave Hooper, executive director of the Texas Thoroughbred Association. "This business is reflective of competition, and we've got significantly increased competition across two borders."

Hooper pointed to the number of tracks in New Mexico and Louisiana that have installed slot machines since 1999.

Jeff Greco, general manager of Lone Star, said the general economy, which has been hit hard since the terrorist attacks of 2001, has hurt business in Texas.

"I read in all the economic information put out that Texas, which led the way in growth in the late 1990's and early 2000, is now behind the national average in recovering," he said. "The last couple of quarters, the state's unemployment rate has been higher than the national average."

Relief for racing could come in the form of video lottery terminals, which are similar to slot machines. Installing them requires approval from the Texas Legislature.

"Obviously, the solution for us is to be on a level playing field," said Hooper.

Said Greco: "In order for Texas to take a giant leap, we have to be able to expand distribution of our product through an OTB network," he said. "Something else that would enhance purses would be to allow telephone account wagering.

"Texas needs to provide some more tools to allow the game to compete."

Texas wagering should receive a boost this year when Lone Star hosts the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships on Oct. 30. Lone Star will run a 19-day fall meet to coincide with the Breeders' Cup.