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 believes that his early warnings about racing’s downside have been “clearly vindicated.” But even the sport’s supporters admit they’ve made some big mistakes along the way. They’re probably right that racing in Texas can still be saved, yet it’s going to take more cooperation within the horse industry, more legislative help, more business savvy, and more public education than anyone predicted. Most important, it’s going to take more time.
Right now, you probably couldn’t get decent odds anywhere on a rosy future for Texas racing. But in the years before betting on the ponies was legalized here, Thoroughbred aficionados from Kentucky’s Churchill Downs to New York’s Belmont Park would speak longingly of Texas as the sport’s ultimate frontier—even its salvation. Texas, after all, was a land of big spenders and horse–crazy cowboys, or so the fantasies went. I remember a meeting of Jockey Club Pooh–Bahs in Saratoga, New York, in the late eighties, where legendary Thoroughbred owner Joe Straus, Jr., the San Antonio auto–parts mogul who heads Retama Park, was lauded as a hero for his role in getting racing legalized in Texas.
Thoroughbred racing, along with parimutuel wagering, had been abolished in Texas during the lean years of the Depression, a casualty of hard times, strong-arm tactics by then-governor Jimmy Allred, and the state’s conservative religious bent. Consequently, the pent–up demand for horse racing should have been as strong as a desert wanderer’s desire for drink. Washington Post pundit Andrew Beyer, probably the canniest handicapper in the country, noted that two of the last big tracks built, Minnesota’s Canterbury Downs and Alabama’s Birmingham Turf Club, went belly–up after being launched with great fanfare—Birmingham declaring bankruptcy just a week after racing was legalized in Texas. But Texas’ situation was unique, he said; it would “mark the start of an important new era in the sport.”
Beyer, like almost everyone else in the business, was swayed by a number of tangible factors. To begin with, Thoroughbred breeding in Texas was already well established; the state ranks fourth in the nation in the production of foals. Texans have been involved in national racing for generations; the King Ranch, for example, boasts two Kentucky Derby winners: Assault in 1946—who also won the Triple Crown—and Middleground in 1950. In recent years a number of top quarter–horse owners have crossed over to Thoroughbreds with dazzling success, including West Texas rancher Clarence Scharbauer, whose Alysheba won two legs of the Triple Crown in 1987. And there was considerable evidence that Texans liked to wager on horses. Marketing surveys by tracks in neighboring states—Louisiana Downs in Shreveport; Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas; and Remington Park in Oklahoma City—showed that the tracks benefited from their proximity to Texas, particularly to the Dallas–Fort Worth area.
So what happened? The trouble began even before racing was legalized, when intimidated racing lobbyists—fearing opposition by religious groups—settled for weak legislation. The initial bill that approved pari–mutuel wagering called for the state to take 5 percent of the “handle” (the total amount wagered at each track)—considerably more than the takeout in many other states that allow racing—and there was no allowance for “simulcasting” (betting on televised races at other tracks) or off–track betting ( OTB). “It was horrible,” says Keith Kleine, the publicity director for Retama Park, who formerly worked at Churchill Downs. “The racing lobby failed to educate the heavies in the Legislature how immense this industry is, how labor intensive it is, how the dollars multiply.”
With such a big chunk of their revenue to be taken off the top and without the additional revenues of simulcasting and OTB, debt–heavy racetracks would have to start out like gangbusters and keep on rolling. In racing terms, they would have to carry more weight than old Kelso, the great handicap horse, did in his prime. And this would be no easy task, thanks to two problems that affect every track