01/19/2011 3:33PM

Sam Houston meet opens with fewer days but higher purses


Sam Houston Race Park’s racing program has undergone a complete makeover for the 27-date meet that opens Friday. The calendar is condensed, while purses have expanded. The stakes program has been enhanced. And there will be afternoon cards every Monday through the close of the season March 7.

“By all accounts, we’re very optimistic,” said Andrea Young, president of Sam Houston. “We had more stall applications than we’ve had in four or five years. We have some outfits coming in that have not been at Sam Houston in some time. So, we think folks have really responded to the seven-week meet, to the purse structure, to the stakes program.”

Sam Houston’s meet had typically extended about 60 days between November and April. But about this time a year ago, Texas industry leaders began talks about consolidating dates in order to combat declining handle and purses. One plan was for Sam Houston to drop its Thoroughbred meet and shuttle its purse funds to Lone Star Park. Ultimately, each of the state’s major tracks kept their seasons but pared them down. The first meet under the new structure comes at Sam Houston.

“We spent a long time working on it, and we’re excited to actually implement it,” Young said.

Sam Houston opens with a lot in the hopper. Penn National Gaming has an agreement to purchase 50 percent of the Maxxam-owned track, pending Texas Racing Commission approval. Penn Gaming is undergoing the background checks required for licensing in Texas.

Sam Houston’s opening marks the return of Thoroughbred racing in Texas for the first time since Retama Park’s meet closed Oct. 23. Purses are set for $160,000 a day, up from the typical $100,000 to $110,000 at Sam Houston.

“The money being better, it’s got people enthused,” said Joe Offolter, a trainer who has a 32-horse stable in place at Sam Houston.

Steve Asmussen, Bret Calhoun, and Karl Broberg, who ranked among North America’s top 10 trainers in wins in 2010, all have divisions at Sam Houston as does the high-percentage Danny Pish. New faces include Jack Bruner. Among riders, Offolter said he plans to team on a regular basis with newcomer Lyndie Wade. Quincy Hamilton also is part of the colony that includes Chris Landeros, Paul Nolan, and Eguard Tejera.

The stakes program starts Saturday with the $400,000 Texas Champions Day card of seven stakes. Other highlights of the 14-race, $1.1 million schedule include the Grade 3, $200,000 Connally Cup Turf on Jan. 29 and the $150,000 Maxxam Gold Cup on March 5. Both races are for older horses at 1 1/8 miles, with the Connally on turf and the Maxxam on dirt.

Sam Houston raced a handful of Mondays at the end of its Thoroughbred meet last spring and will bring back the afternoon cards for the entire meet. Admission is free on Mondays.

“We did four Mondays and they were in the top 10 days of the meet overall for selling the signal,” Young said. “So we’re going to expand upon that success that we had.”

Sam Houston also will offer a 50-cent minimum wagers on all pick threes, pick fours, and trifectas. The change was made at the request of horseplayers, Young said.

First post Friday is 7 p.m. Central.