03/12/2009 12:00AM

Helzer aims to add to year-end stakes


In the last 20 years, Jim Helzer has campaigned Refrigerator, one of the most popular Quarter Horses of all time; developed stallion farms in New Mexico and Texas; and taken a leadership role in Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing in the Southwest.

His latest endeavor is the presidency of the American Quarter Horse Association. Helzer, 69, was elected president at the AQHA's annual convention in San Antonio earlier this month.

The position encompasses not only leading the racing side, but other aspects of the breed, such as pleasure horses and show horses. Racing, though, is closest to Helzer's heart. Currently, Helzer is training a 20-horse stable of his horses based at Lone Star Park.

As AQHA president, Helzer has expressed views of altering one of Quarter Horse racing's biggest events, the Challenge Championship series, a group of stakes run in regions throughout the nation concluding with a championship night of major stakes in the fall.

This year's Challenge Championship finals will be held Oct. 31 at Los Alamitos and are led by the $350,000 Bank of America Racing Challenge Championship for older horses. In addition, there are 11 other stakes on the program, four of which are worth $125,000 to $200,000. Last year, the event was held at Evangeline Downs.

Helzer said Thursday that he would like to see the program expanded to include another $1 million in purses for championship night by 2012. By 2015, he envisions the development of four new major stakes, run at the end of the year, for 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, older females, and older males.

Funding for those programs could come from several sources, such as nominating fees generated from stallion and horse owners, sponsorships, or even racetrack purses should Texas tracks ever gain slot machines.

An expanded program would require adjusting existing schedules. For example, Los Alamitos currently hosts the Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity and $750,000 Champion of Champions for older horses in mid-December.

But there are not such valuable races run in New Mexico, Oklahoma, or Texas in December.

"The magnitude of something like that is we don't want to eliminate the stakes we've got," Helzer said. "We have to be careful how we implement that.

"It's going to require some restructuring. If we start working on it now, with various formats with Los Alamitos, Sunland, and Lone Star, we can put a better program."

The current economic climate, combined with existing commitments, prevents changes to the Challenge Championship program for this year or 2010.

Helzer's concepts depend on a rebounding economy, and, regarding the Texas tracks, government approval of video lottery terminals in that state.

Helzer is actively campaigning on behalf of Texas's racing industry for legislative support. Texas is surrounded by states that have some form of slot machines or casino gambling, and needs revenue from such sources to increase purses.

"A lot of it will be contingent on what the economy can do," Helzer said of his expansion plans. "If we can get the VLTs in, it will be easy to achieve. If not, it will be hard."

This is not the sport's first go-round for such legislation in Austin, but there is optimism for a breakthrough. A bill authorizing VLTs was scheduled to be introduced this week.

"We, as horsemen and racetracks, are trying to get united," Helzer said. "This is the first time since I've been involved since 2001 that we've got a lot of senators and representatives talking to us. They know we have billions of dollars going out of this state."