04/09/2013 2:27PM

Lone Star makes progress ontrack, if not in the legislature

Coady Photography
Solar Charge is a top contender in the Premiere Stakes, which will be run as the first race on the opening-night card at Lone Star.

When Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas, opens for its 17th Thoroughbred spring meet Thursday evening, offtrack fans may not see much difference from past meets. The horsemen competing at Lone Star are largely unchanged. Overnight purses are flat at approximately $130,000 per day, and the stakes program is roughly equivalent to last year’s, minus a couple stakes for Texas-sired 2-year-olds.

But the experience for ontrack fans and horsemen should be noticeably improved.

The track is in the midst of a 3-year, $11  million capital improvement campaign, which began last year with a $3 million makeover of its Bar & Book simulcast center. It has continued this year with a renovation of the main track, the clubhouse Silks Dining Terrace, and the addition of a new 17-foot-by-60-foot infield video screen that replaces the old Jumbotron that was there since the track’s opening in 1997.

The new LED video screen will allow it to present two simultaneous video feeds, such as a pan and head-on view.

All this expenditure comes despite racing at Lone Star, and Texas tracks in general, being at a competitive disadvantage versus neighboring racing states – not having casino gambling, offtrack state betting, or legal advance deposit wagering, the current growth segments of the horse racing industry.

Attempts to pass gambling expansion in Texas have made little headway in the legislature.

“There are several bills that would be a benefit to us this year, but it would be premature to say they’d get passed,” said Drew Shubeck, Lone Star Park president and general manager.

For horsemen, the most significant change is the reconditioning of the main track – a move designed to eliminate a bias that was noticed during the track’s Quarter Horse meet last year and to help it better cope with summer weather, Shubeck said.

Danny Pish, who topped the trainer standings at Lone Star last year, said his initial impressions of the reconditioned track are positive, but it’s “far too early to make a strong evaluation.”

At least the main track will see action opening week; the turf course will not. Due to cool winter and spring weather, track officials felt the grass needed another week of spring growth before use, racing secretary Michael Shamburg said.

Entries were light for opening day, with 74 horses entered in nine races, an average of roughly 8.2 horses a race. Last year, the track averaged 8.4 starters to per race, down from 8.9 in 2011, a decline that contributed to a 7 percent drop in daily handle.

Shamburg said a new addition to the Lone Star backstretch this year is Justin Evans, one of the leading trainers from New Mexico. Back, as usual, to Lone Star with large stables will be Pish, Steve Asmussen, Bret Calhoun, and Jack Bruner.

Chris Landeros and Luis Quinonez will be absent from the jockeys’ room this summer – shifting to different circuits. Veteran Cliff Berry is the favorite to be leading rider.

The traditional opening-day feature, the $50,000 Premiere Stakes for Texas-breds at 6 1/2 furlongs, is, as usual, the first on the card, and looks to be a battle between 12-time winner Solar Charge and the streaking but less seasoned Triumph and Song.

Circumstances favor Triumph and Song, who may have the speed to clear the field. Most recently he won a second-level, six-furlong allowance at Fair Grounds in front-running fashion, posting a career-best 100 Beyer Speed Figure.

“He’s just a very fast horse,” Calhoun said. “That was amazing his last race, going 21 and change, and doing it easy, his ears just flopping.”

Along with the Premiere, 11 stakes are on deck. Stakes purses total $1.1 million, and are highlighted by the Grade 3, $200,000 Texas Mile an April 27 and the Grade 3, $300,000 Lone Star Park Handicap on May 27.