01/18/2012 5:23PM

Sam Houston opens with new partner, new wagers

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Sam Houston Race Park in Houston will begin its racing season Friday night with a new ownership structure, an expanded wagering format, improved purses, and a redesigned Texas Champions Day. The 31-date meet will continue through March 12, with its biggest race, the Grade 3, $200,000 Connally Turf, to be run Jan. 28.

“We’re looking forward to a great 2012,” said Andrea Young, president of Sam Houston. “We haven’t seen this kind of enthusiasm for our racing within the community and from our own employees and the folks on our backside for a real long time.”

Penn National Gaming came on board as 50-percent owner of Sam Houston last April. The company joins longtime owner Maxxam in operating the meet in what is a joint partnership, said Young.

“They’re strong partners both financially and in what they bring to the table in terms of experience and expertise,” said Young.

Sam Houston’s wagering format is flashier for 2012. The track will introduce two new wagers this meet, said Young. There will now be a pick five, and it will run on the final five races on the card. There will also be a bet called the Houston Hi-Five twice a card. It requires patrons to select the first five finishers in a race. Both wagers will have a 50 cent minimum, and both will feature a low, 12 percent takeout. The same takeout will apply to pick threes, which has long been standard at Sam Houston.

Purses are budgeted to average close to $165,000 a day this meet, said Young. That number is up over last season, she said, when purses averaged just under $160,000 a day. She also noted that Sam Houston is racing four more Thoroughbred dates over last year. Young said the increase in purses is possible because of improved handle last year at Sam Houston. The track had a condensed schedule for Thoroughbreds for the first time after running an approximately 60-date meet that traditionally stretched from November to April.

“The success we had last year fed into the remainder of our year across all the lines of our business,” she said.

“I would say I foresee this kind of format as one we would continue to pursue. By all measurements for us it was incredibly successful last year. There was a lot more renewed interest in our product.”

The stakes schedule will feature 15 races worth more than $1.1 million in total. The richest race is the Connally Cup, which is for 4-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles. Another key event is the $150,000 Maxxam Gold Cup, a 1 1/8-mile dirt race for 4-year-olds and up March 3.

Sam Houston has also long been home to the $400,000 Texas Champions Day, a program of seven divisional stakes for Texas-breds. This meet, the track has divided up the offerings between Friday and Saturday night, and rebranded this year’s edition as Texas Champions Weekend.

“We’re breaking it up over two days, with fillies and mares on Friday and the open races for Texas-breds on Saturday,” said Young.

Friday night’s card features three stakes, each worth $50,000. The action starts in the seventh with the Bara Lass for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs. It drew Fair Grounds invader Color Code, as well as Retama Park stakes winner Cowgirl N Up.

In the Yellow Rose for fillies and mares at six furlongs, multiple stakes winner Tin Top Cat leads the field of 12.

The San Jacinto at 1 1/16 miles on turf drew the comebacking Kite Seeker, who has raced once since winning the San Jacinto in 2011.