Texas horse racing is foundering. Handle is declining, purses plummeting, quality racing diminishing, bettors bitching, and Fred-the-Beerman grousing that he doesn’t make tips like he used to. So in an effort to do something – because doing nothing has proved to be a pretty poor model – the Texas racetracks and Texas horsemen put their noggins together and devised a proposal: reduce the number of racing dates in Texas, effectively increasing the size of purses thus attracting better horses and fields thus attracting bettors thus increasing handle.
Sounds sound, huh?
Whoa, Nellie! Hold your horses ...
Apparently, not all Texas horsemen were in on this scheme. And they are not happy. Nor are they quiet.
The Racetracks/Most-of-the-Texas-Horsemen proposed a 48% reduction in racing dates, which includes eliminating thoroughbred racing at Sam Houston Race Park and doing something or other with a handful of Retama race dates. Losing that many racing dates would effectively put the small Texas owner/trainer/breeder out of business. It’s their livelihood. And if it were my livelihood, I’d probably put up a fight, too.
The horsemen dissidents – self-described mushrooms (“They have kept us in the dark and fed us crap for years”) – are valiant defenders of the status quo. True to their beliefs; fighting for the cause. Much like the defenders of the Alamo – except that didn’t exactly turn out too good for those guys.
Out of this opposition emerged a leader, Joe Kerby. He operates a breeding business in Salado, just north of Austin. In an impassioned letter to the Texas Racing Commission, he argues his case for 155 racing dates throughout Texas:
More race dates = higher handle = higher purses.
Apparently there is an assumption that “better” horses generate more handle. Lone Star Park’s Grade III races, with their large purses, handle far less than an allowance race bet at places like Gulfstream Park or Churchill Downs, or the New York and California tracks. Quality horses do NOT beget handle. Reality is that bettors prefer to bet on full fields of reasonably matched horses. Write races that will be more attractive to bettors, and handle will increase.
Well, I’m neither breeder, owner, trainer, nor odd-ball horseman. I’m a bettor. And I know numerous other bettors. And bettors want better. So yes, I’m all for writing races that are more attractive to bettors; quit filling cards with older claiming maidens and non-winners of two. But with purses sitting at $150,000 per day, it doesn’t exactly attract the likes of Afleet Express.
The vast majority of Texas horsemen would prefer to run at less money per day with more opportunity to race
This is a troubling assumption. How can horsemen afford to maintain stables? Good trainers – those that provide good feed, excellent veterinary care, and top notch training –can’t afford an operation such as that. According to trainers Dallas and Donna Keen,
It costs on average $2500-3000 per horse per month to have a horse in race training. Lone Star Park was the only track someone could break even at if their horse didn't win at least one race a month, but they still have to run second in an allowance type race to make enough money just pay for their training.
Owners are reluctant to send their horses to Texas, as their horses have to win every race they’re entered. Trainers see their clientele dwindle. Moving their stables to other states, be it Louisiana or even Iowa, becomes attractive. You got to make some money – you still got to pay the hay guy.
So what does that leave? The little operations – stables that can afford to run at that purse level - and a bunch of skinny fillies? Is that going to fill grandstands and increase handle? Truly, is that our vision of Texas racing? Once so promising – hosting the 2004 Breeders’ Cup where superstars Ghostzapper and Ouija Board graced our presence – only to deteriorate to a sad conglomeration of perpetual claimers?
Additionally, there remains a conspiracy theory that racetracks are using their clout to expand gaming. “It’s all about the slots”, as some vocal horsemen proclaim. Now, I’m a conspiracy theorist at heart – I don’t subscribe to the Lone Gunman and Elvis is still alive, retired after years of working for the CIA and is now living under the name of Buford Winnebago in Ochlocknee, Georgia – but this is a case of economics. Racetracks have to sell a product (horse racing) and if the customers (bettors) don’t buy, racetracks go out of business. If the racetracks go out of business, then none of this will matter anyway.
True, there is a burning desire to bring slots and casinos into Texas by the racetracks, as well as other gambling lobbies. And each legislative session Texas horsemen are optimistic; the Almighty Slots will be the savior of Texas’ purses. Perhaps one day when the Baptist Convention isn’t paying attention, this will indeed happen. However, Texas racing is in trouble and it’s time to find a creative solution now.
One can only hope that a consolidation of race dates would be merely temporary and that there could be some sort of compromise between the opposing factions of Texas horsemen. Dialogue. Innovation. Creativity. Work towards a solution that is good for Texas racing.