04/10/2012 3:25PM

Lone Star: Meeting opens amid tough times

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Solar Charge will be among the favorites in Thursday's $50,000 Premiere Stakes for Texas-breds at Lone Star Park.

When Global Gaming Solutions, a subsidiary of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, purchased the license to operate Lone Star Park, the company essentially bet on Texas racing and Lone Star’s upside should Texas tracks receive legislative approval for casino gambling.

Now, when Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie opens for its 16th Thoroughbred season Thursday night, Global Gaming and Lone Star hope horseplayers bet on them – because for 2012, that’s all the gambling there is.

Lone Star, like the other racetracks in Texas, faces an uphill battle similar to other tracks that do not have slot machines or other forms of casino gambling – only their hill is steeper.

Further challenging them is that no offtrack wagering is allowed in Texas, nor is account wagering legal to Texas residents, although some companies continue to accept wagers, said Drew Shubeck, president and general manager of Lone Star.

Lone Star does not have much of a national television presence, either, with HRTV and TVG expected to show their races only sparingly, Shubeck said. Live racing, however, will be offered on the new Horse Races Now app, available on iPhones and iPads.

Add up these challenges, in addition to the hurdles that horse racing in general is facing, and it should come as little surprise that racing at Lone Star is hurting. Stakes purses were slashed during the off season, and its daily purse distribution at $140,000 a day is the lowest in track history.

Yet Shubeck is optimistic for the meet and what the future may hold. Racing interests will have another opportunity in 2013 to convince the conservative legislature to expand gambling, and in the meantime, Lone Star is focusing on the basics – racing, entertainment, and ontrack simulcasting.

So much so that among Global Gaming’s first touches to the Lone Star facility was a $3 million makeover of the track’s simulcast center, the old Post Time Pavilion. Now Called the “Bar & Book,” the 36,000-square-foot venue has taken on an upscale sports-bar feel, with large flat-screen televisions and amenities designed to draw lunch-time patrons and more traditional whole-afternoon bettors.

Admission is free to the Bar & Book, even during live racing.

Since opening in December, “They’ve been up week by week,” said Dave Hooper, executive director of the Texas Thoroughbred Association. “It bodes well that they’ve reacquired more of their fans and are attracting new ones.”

Continuing its theme of being more than a racetrack, Lone Star will continue its popular concert series, with the Randy Rogers Band getting the music series under way April 13.

On the racing front, most of the stables that have raced at Lone Star in recent years are back, including those of leading trainers Steve Asmussen and Bret Calhoun, though there are few new faces among trainers.

Calhoun has three horses entered Thursday, including two in the traditional opening-night stakes race, the $50,000 Premiere Stakes for Texas-breds, which, in a Lone Star tradition, kicks off the card.

Calhoun’s two entrants, Red Coyote and Gold Element, are two of the leading contenders, along with Solar Charge in the Premiere, which was shortened to 6 1/2 furlongs this year.

“Obviously, I want to continue to support Lone Star,” said Calhoun, who has raced at the track since its inception.

Calhoun said he accepts the cutting of the stakes schedule, a reduction he felt was needed to keep the overnight purse structure from going under $140,000 a day.

The cuts came at a price. It resulted in the gutting of much of the track’s signature Memorial Day card, which once had $1 million in purses, by eliminating the $200,000 Lone Star Derby, the $200,000 Ouija Board Distaff, and the $150,000 Dallas Turf Cup that were previously run on that day.

As usual, the horse population at Lone Star and rider colony will grow upon the completion of racing at Oaklawn Park this weekend.

Current Oaklawn riders Cliff Berry and Luis Quinonez are expected to join a colony that includes Texas regulars Glenn Murphy and Roman Chapa.