07/08/2014 2:55PM

Calls mount for Instant Racing at Texas tracks

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Dustin Orona Photography
Lone Star is averaging 7,341 spectators per card at this meet, down 8 percent from last year.

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas – Lone Star Park has been considered Texas’s flagship track since it opened in 1997 and hosted the Breeders’ Cup in 2004. But when the Dallas-area oval closes its Thoroughbred meet Saturday night, it will wrap up arguably its most challenging season in 18 years of operation.

With just three programs remaining, Lone Star is averaging $830,315 a day in handle on its live races from all sources, according to figures provided by the track. The number lags 13 percent behind last year’s final average of $958,489 and even farther behind Lone Star’s peak of $2,747,466 in 1999.

Attendance is also lagging behind last year heading into the final week of the meet. Lone Star is averaging 7,341 patrons a card, off 8 percent from last year’s final average of 8,039. This comes despite a July 4 program that drew 26,018. Lone Star’s best average daily attendance was 9,808 in 1998.

Lone Star is not alone in its struggles. Texas racing has become something of an island, the lone state in the Mid-South region of Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma that is unable to supplement its purses with either gaming or account wagering. Since 2005, the year Texas returned to its traditional calendar after Lone Star ran a special fall Thoroughbred meet for the Breeders’ Cup, there have been alarming declines in handle, purses, and race dates.

According to the annual reports put out by the Texas Racing Commission, handle on Texas’s live horse races was more than $359 million in 2005, a number that plummeted to $130 million in 2013. The drop-off in Thoroughbred purse monies over the last nine years has been just as sobering, with $25.1 million in 2005 tumbling to $14.4 million in 2013. As for race dates, back in 2005, there were 192 for Thoroughbreds between Lone Star (67), Sam Houston Race Park (82) in Houston, and Retama Park (43) near San Antonio. Last year, the three tracks combined for 109.

Despite the downward spiral, horsemen finishing out the Lone Star meet are hopeful for the future. There is a movement to bring historical racing machines to tracks in Texas. The terminals that operate as “Instant Racing” at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and some tracks in Kentucky are pari-mutuel in nature but play like slot machines.

“It would be the savior of Texas racing, I think,” said Danny Pish, one of the state’s winningest trainers. “And I also feel, due to the fact that it will be a well-needed shot in the arm, that a lot of former players would come back home from out of state, and some people that are still here that have quit playing will get back in.”

The Texas Racing Commission has scheduled a July 17 hearing in Austin to accept public comments on the prospect of historical racing terminals at the state’s tracks. The agency on June 27 published proposed amended rules to govern “historical racing,” and written public comments on those changes are being accepted at its offices through July 27. The Texas Thoroughbred Association is circulating a petition supporting “parimutuel wagering on historical races,” and along with other groups is passing out sample letters people can send to the commission.

Colleen Davidson, a Texas owner and breeder for more than 30 years who also works as an assistant to her husband, trainer Brent Davidson, sees historical racing as crucial to the survival of racing in Texas.

“I’m for it because Texas has got to get back in the groove, or we’re done,” she said. “It’s over if we do not get something to help our industry.”

The declines in the state can be measured in a variety of ways:

◗ The Texas Racing Commission issued 12,147 occupational licenses at its horse and greyhound tracks in 2005. By last year, that number had dropped to 5,961.

◗ There were 16,418 Thoroughbred starters in the state in 2005, and last year, 8,883, according to figures provided by the commission.

◗ Thoroughbred purses at Lone Star averaged $213,820 a card in 2005 and $143,835 in 2013.

◗ Sam Houston ran 82 dates for Thoroughbreds in 2005 and 33 in 2013.

◗ Retama handled $37 million on its Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse races in 2005 and $19 million on those same meets in 2013.

The talk of historical racing terminals in Texas got serious last December. A letter signed by most all of the state’s breeding and racing organizations, including greyhound interests, was submitted to the commission May 27, asking the agency to consider amending its rules to provide for the terminals.

“The proposal is something the horsemen have requested,” said Mike Lavigne, an Austin-based consultant to Sam Houston. “Obviously, we’d like it, too. There’s great agreement amongst all parties.”

The earliest a commission vote could come up is August, according to Robert Elrod, public information officer for the commission. If there is no action by Dec. 27, the topic dies. It is not believed that legislative approval would be needed to install historical racing machines at the tracks in Texas.

“The rules published are pretty clear that these are machines that are dependent on historic racing odds. And they do show a race,” Lavigne said. “It’s very clearly parimutuel. It falls under the current guidelines of parimutuel wagering. The commission has oversight, and so it’s pretty clear they have rule-making authority over these types of things. They have the authority to look at this and make a decision on new technology for something that’s already allowed.”

Danele Durham, whose clients include Hall’s Family Trust, the owner of a leading Texas-bred in Texas Bling, said historical racing could be a boon for a state with tracks in or bordering three of the country’s 10 most populated cities.

“I think that it would definitely increase our purses, and that seems to be the whole problem in Texas,” Durham said. “We need larger purses to attract the better horses. When you have the better horses running, you have more people coming out, and you have larger handles, and it just makes a full cycle and goes back into the horsemen’s accounts. The states that have two forms of income are definitely able to put more money back into the purses.”

Pish agreed.

“What it would do for our outbound signal is huge,” he said, “because the money that it would generate would bring a higher quality of horse here, and then our outbound signal would go back to what it once was, a better product.”

Lone Star has lost ground in offtrack markets at this meet. It is averaging $573,955 a day in handle on its live races offsite, a figure that lags 16 percent behind last year’s final offtrack average of $685,395. There are a number of reasons for the decline, including the fact that favorites are winning at a 44 percent rate, with the track’s three leading trainers accounting for 131 of the 429 races run through Wednesday.

Lone Star’s ontrack patrons are betting an average of $256,360 a card on the track’s live races, which lags 6 percent behind last year’s figure. However, handle on incoming simulcasts at Lone Star has averaged $591,325 a day at this meet, up more than 9 percent from 2013. Such an increase illustrates a continued interest in the sport in the Lone Star State.

“We have faith in Texas racing and continue to breed Texas-breds because we think the future of racing will be here in Texas,” Durham said.