The Brock Talk

Friday, July 1, 2011

Texans Will Need Alamo Spirit For Next Two Years

After twelve days of battling the massive army of Mexican general Santa Anna, on March 6, 1836 the small garrison of men defending the Alamo Mission near modern-day San Antonio were defeated. Less than 200 Texians battled the estimated 1,500 Mexican soldiers but were eventually over run in the bloody and cruel battle.

Only two Texians survived to tell of the horrors of the battle, but their reports inspired a sudden onslaught of Texas settlers and additional adventurers from the United States to join the Texian Army. Under the flag of the Texas Republic and with “Remember the Alamo!” as their battle cry, the Texian Army defeated the Mexicans just 45 days after the loss at the Alamo mission near San Antonio de Bexar. The battle of San Jacinto thus ended the Texas revolution and returned southern Texas to the Republic.

Today the Alamo still exists in San Antonio, not as a mission, but rather as a shrine to the spirit of Texas. The “Remember the Alamo” cry still exists in modern state culture in recognition of Texas tenacity, determination and pride.

Now the Texas horse racing industry must embrace that “come back against difficult odds” spirit that was so inspired by the Alamo. Again, the Texas State legislature concluded another session (the most recent a special session) without passing the bill that would have allowed voters to decide if they wanted slot machines at horse and greyhounds tracks and casinos on federally recognized Indian reservations in Texas.

Now those involved in Texas horse racing must endure two more years without the gaming supplements that are pushing purses at competitive tracks in neighboring states ever higher.

“It’s like fighting your competition with one hand tied behind your back,” Bart Lang, Director of Racing at Lone Star Park, told The Brock Talk recently. “We’ve had to cut purses this year and I’m sure we’ll have to cut purses again next year. Every year we are having more trouble competing.”

Trainer Bret Calhoun is a native of Grand Prairie and was raised very near to where Lone Star Park now sits. His barn has grown from a small operation when Lone Star Park opened in 1997 into a nationally ranked stable, winning two Breeders’ Cup races in 2010 with Dubai Majesty (Filly and Mare Sprint); and Chamberlain Bridge (Turf Sprint.) “I’ve tried to encourage some of my Texas owners to run their horses in other states,” Calhoun said. “But some of them want to race in Texas. So I’ll have horses [in Texas] until horse racing is extinct in the state. It will just have to be a different caliber of horse.”

Ken Carson, general manager of Valor Farm in Pilot Point, Texas said the impact of slot legislation not passing will easily reach the breeding industry. “The last time the slot legislation did not pass [in 2009], it triggered a very big lull in the Texas breeding industry,” Carson said. “When the slot bill failed this time, we at least have Global Gaming at Lone Star Park. When Global Gaming got Lone Star Park, that may have been the single biggest moment in Texas racing since pari-mutuel wagering came back to Texas in 1989.”

Global Gaming is the gaming arm of the Chickasaw Nation based in Ada, Oklahoma. Lone Star Park is the second track purchased by Global Gaming, which also purchased Remington Park in Oklahoma City for $80.25, taking possession of that track in January 2010. They quickly spent a reported $15 million on Remington Park and fans in Oklahoma responded with record attendance last year.

Global Gaming recently took control of Lone Star Park after purchasing the track for a reported $47.8 million from Magna Entertainment which bankrupted the track. “I don’t have a problem with the individuals who work at Lone Star Park, but Magna as a corporation did nothing for Texas racing,” Carson said. “They did nothing to improve the grandstand and the backside is literally falling apart.”

Lang said no improvement plans have been solidified for the stable area but the Post Time Pavilion off-track-betting facility at the track will undergo significant renovation in the coming months. “We’re still in the planning stages of work to be done on the barns,” Lang said. “But it doesn’t bother me that money is being spent to improve the front side. The Post Time Pavilion is where our purse money comes from.”

For at least another two years, on-track and simulcast wagering will be the only revenue sources for purse accounts at Texas tracks. At the same time, prize money at tracks like Sunland Park in New Mexico, Remington Park, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and Louisiana Downs will continue to grow due to the supplements of additional gaming in their respective states.

The failure by the Texas state legislature to pass the slot legislation was certainly a punch in the stomach of horse racing and breeding in Texas, but it had a more far reaching impact outside of racing as well. The slot bill that went to the state Senate floor before the threatened filibuster of Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, also included a provision to create the Performance Horse Development Fund. The PHDF would be created with funds from revenues created by slots at race tracks in the state and would be used to promote many other breeds and horse disciplines throughout Texas.

Jeff Hooper, executive director of the National Cutting Horse Association based in Fort Worth, Texas, said that in it’s entirety, the PHDF may be worth between $10 and $30 million according to some estimations. That is money that would be used by entities such as the American Quarter Horse Association, American Paint Horse Association, the NCHA and the state department of agriculture for various programs, services and shows in Texas.

“It was a large disappointment when the slot bill failed,” Hooper said. “But it just means that we will work diligently toward getting this legislation passed in 2013. It also means that anybody who has a vested interest in any horse activity in Texas has reason to work toward getting this bill passed.”

Although Lone Star Park has been the leader among the Texas horse racing facilities and has an infusion of security from new ownership, the other two class I tracks in the state also appear to be ready to weather the storm. Penn National Gaming recently purchased Sam Houston Race Park in Houston and it appears Retama Park near San Antonio secured financing from CFMB Holdings in New York to operate at least until the next legislative session in two years.

That also means there are some awfully big players that have tall stacks of chips sitting on the come bet of slots eventually being allowed at Texas tracks. That appears to be the silver lining for a horse industry that is supposed to be so much part of the Texas identity yet is repeatedly ignored by those in the state capital. Seems a difficult part of Lone Star culture for lawmakers to miss. After all, they have to pass the Cowboy Memorial and Texas Ranger statues on their way to work. Both figures are mounted on horses in front of the Texas state capitol building. (Mounted is a relative term with regard to the cowboy of course.)(Photo left)

Like the Texians at San Jacinto in 1836, who gathered supporters both from within and outside the state, horse racing too much rally their troops. And just as the Texians avenged the loss at the Alamo and eventually won the Texas revolution, horse racing must overcome the repeated losses thrown at them by their state legislatures both past and present.

Remember the Purse Cuts!


suebroux said...

I've been following this VLT drama for a number of years and it's a source of frustration. It certainly doesn't help that there are opposing factions within the Texas horse racing industry; a very vocal little group constantly spouts that the agenda is "Slots or nothing," with no Plan B, i.e., ADW, internet wagering. And I suspect, on some level, they very well might be correct. I have never seen any other alternative revenue generator proposal other than reducing race dates to improve the purses.

It remains "more of the same" for the next two years, and as one commenter once wrote, "More of the same is not a hit with the public." There needs to be some improvements - lower takeout? ADW? - to make Texas racing more attractive to bettors.

Trainer Dallas Keen told me that he thinks there is huge room for marketing improvements to bring new fans/bettor to the races.

Brock Sheridan said...

No doubt there is plenty of room for additional marketing efforts in Texas. Magna slashed every budget at Lone Star including the Marketing budget and drove LS into bankruptcy. Global Gaming already has announced plans to renovate the Post Time Pavilion, one would think marketing dollars will follow. Also, they spent $15 on Remington when they acquired that track, so again, it logical to expect similar money coming to Grand Prairie.

I agree with you on take-out and every other person in racing agrees.(save racing commissioners and track managers). That one has always baffled me.

I would also like to see advanced deposit wagering in Texas, but again, I'm not sure ADW money can compete with slot money. And I expect it will meet with just as much opposition in Austin as slots.

Unfortunately for Texas, we are currently competing with slot money at Sunland, Remington, Louisiana Downs, Delta, Prairie Meadows, and others.

We also know that there are millions of slot dollars in Texas. They leave daily going to casinos in Bossier City, Sunland Park and just across the Red River from Sherman, Gainesville and Wichita Falls, Texas.

You bring up some very good points Sue. Thank you for the comments.