IN HORSE RACING there are no sure things—an ancient rule of handicapping that horse–loving Texans have had to learn the hard way. After all, even the mighty Secretariat lost a race to an upstart named Onion. But if ever there looked like a winning proposition, the kind of “mortal lock” that would make a gambler throw caution to the wind, it was horse racing in Texas. Who would have guessed that when Thoroughbred racing finally returned to the state in 1987, after being banned for fifty years, the result would look more like a demolition derby than the Kentucky Derby?
“There’s been a little pinprick in the balloon,” acknowledges Helen Alexander, a King Ranch scion and a former president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. Indeed, nine years after the Texas Legislature gave racing the green light, all three of the state’s class 1 tracks (those with the higher purses and faster horses) have stumbled badly, and two of four class 2 tracks have been a total bust. The first track to open in Texas, a class 2 track in Brady named G. Rollie White Downs, lost $1 million and closed less than a month after it opened in 1989. Another class 2 track, Bandera Downs in Bandera, shut down last year owing horsemen more than $1 million; it will be auctioned off this month. The state’s first class 1 track, Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, is still in operation but has reorganized its debt after filing for bankruptcy last spring. Retama Park northeast of San Antonio, whose losses may close it down permanently, had to stop racing prematurely last fall. And Lone Star Park, to be built in Grand Prairie, is only now reaching the construction stage after years of lawsuits and financial maneuvering among prospective owners.
Not even the most pessimistic of handicappers could have predicted the combination of greed, ignorance, latent puritanism, blind optimism, cutthroat competition, overbuilding, under–marketing, tightfisted betting, bad timing, and just plain bad luck that would bring Texas racing to its knees. It’s no surprise that longtime racing opponent Weston Ware of the influential Baptist–supported Christian Life Commission