Updated on 09/16/2011 9:48AM

Showdown in Lone Star State

Jeff Coady
Officials at Sam Houston Race Park are hoping for a crowd of about 15,000 people on Saturday for the first running of the Great State Challenge.

HOUSTON - Industry officials will be watching carefully Saturday when the Great State Challenge makes its debut at Sam Houston Race Park. The $1.65 million series will feature stars like Take Charge Lady, Forbidden Apple, and Continental Red who will compete in six divisional races for both prize money and bragging rights among 11 states that will be represented.

If the innovative competition is to win a place on the racing calendar next year, much depends on how the program is received Saturday.

"We'll review all those kinds of questions in light of the results from this year," said Tim Smith, commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. "This event hasn't been run before, and we're as interested as anybody to see the public reaction.

"On one level, it's an experiment to see whether we can increase interest in this very important part of Thoroughbred racing, the high-quality statebred competition."

The NTRA hopes the Great State Challenge will bring some attention to the breeding industries of individual states. Modeled on the Breeders' Cup, the program is made up of six divisional races, each worth $275,000, and each restricted to horses bred in states where the recognized horsemen's association is a dues-paying member of the NTRA.

For the first running, 11 states will be represented, with no state allowed to have more than two starters in each race. The eight largest contributors to the NTRA - California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Texas - all have a guaranteed berth in the races, provided their older horses have won or placed in a black-type stakes.

Of the other nine states or provinces eligible to compete, horses bred in Indiana, Iowa, and Washington were pre-entered for races Saturday.

The state whose horses earn the most points based on finish positions during the six divisional races will be crowned the NTRA Great State Challenge Champion. For each race, only the points earned from the highest-placing finisher from one state will be counted. Points range from 10 for first-place finishers down to one for horses who finish sixth to 14th.

The points system sets the stage for the Great State Wager, which will enable patrons to make win bets on which state will be the Great State Challenge Champion.

The idea for a state-versus-state competition has been floating around in some form for years, said Smith. Johnny Jones of Walmac International and Bob Manfuso of Maryland, both Breeders' Cup board members, were driving forces behind the Great State Challenge.

Smith realized the appeal such an event could have in 1999 when he was invited to attend two statebred programs: Texas Champions Day at Sam Houston on a Friday night, and Louisiana Champions Day at Fair Grounds in New Orleans the following afternoon.

"The success of those days, the atmosphere and the industry unity on display, made a lasting impression," Smith said. "They were mini-Breeders' Cup Champions Days at the state level, and the breeders, owners, regulators, track operators, and patrons came together to make those days very successful.

"I thought if we figured out a way to support those days and link them together, it would be positive."

To get into the Great State Challenge, horses had to be invited, and in some jurisdictions, performances during statebred days weighed heavily in the selections made by their breed organizations, which were then submitted to the NTRA/Breeders' Cup, which serves as the administrator of the Great State Challenge.

From there, horses were ranked in order of preference by a panel of racing secretaries. Pre-entries were taken on Nov. 26, with the final draw scheduled for Wednesday.

Sam Houston, which a few years ago expressed a desire to host the Breeders' Cup, gets the national event it craved on Saturday.

"I'd say it was their enthusiasm and desire to do that led to their selection," Smith said.

Sam Houston, a $90 million facility that opened in 1994, is located in a city with a population of four million. For the Great State, the track has made several improvements, including additional seating, mutuel windows, and food and beverage services. Plans also call for opening the infield, with the on-track crowd projected to be about 15,000.

"We hope the Great State Challenge establishes another national event that generates interest in the fall of the year," said Bob Bork, president of Sam Houston.

Aside from the Great State races, Sam Houston will also run four of its own stakes, pushing total purses for the 10-race program to $1.8 million, a record for Texas. Special post for the card will be at 1 p.m. Central.

Sponsors for the Great State program are John Deere and Federal Express. Both are year-round sponsors with the NTRA/Breeders' Cup, and their involvement is part of a multifaceted package with those organizations.

The Great State Challenge, said Smith, "is a good grassroots event to reach several hundred thousand owners and breeders who buy tractors and who use overnight delivery services."

The Great State races will be shown live on TVG and by tape delay Sunday on ESPN2.