I'm not the only one who let my imagination run wild in 1987 when the Texas legislature authorized a state-wide referendum to bring pari-mutuel racing back to the Lone Star state. After all, this was Texas, where you are supposed to think big.
Texas was the home of Arlington Downs racetrack for a glorious decade, opening in 1929 and then closing when the legislature outlawed pari-mutuel wagering.
This was Texas, where horses were such a big part of the history and culture and remain in the mainstream of daily life.
Six Texas cities are in the top 20 U.S. cities by population: Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso.
Texas had a solid core of Thoroughbred owners and breeders, from the family that owns King Ranch to the Farishes of Lane's End to the Scharbauers of Alysheba fame.
There were fits and starts getting horse racing off the ground in Texas. The first pari-mutuel track, G. Rollie White Downs, awarded a Class 2 license, went out of business soon after opening in 1989. The state's first Class 1 track, little Trinity Meadows in Weatherford, near Forth Worth, was a dump and a laughingstock that opened in 1991 and managed to last several years. And there was lots of fighting over the biggest plum, the Class 1 license for the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Sam Houston opened for business as the first real Class 1 racetrack in Houston in 1994. Retama Park in San Antonio and Lone Star Park in Dallas followed suit.
The news of these tracks becoming a reality buoyed the state's breeding industry. In 1995, Texas ranked fourth, behind Kentucky, Florida, and California when 4,427 mares were bred.
But Texans didn't embrace racing the way the consultants and journalists and pari-mutuel backers had hoped. A lottery that began in 1992 was a buzz kill for people who thought Texas horse racing couldn't miss. The gambling landscape around the country began to change. Texas didn't respond to the change.
As pari-mutuel betting dollars in most states drifted first to off-track wagering sites and then to advance deposit wagering, Texans were forced to make bets at licensed racetracks only. Politicians and the religious right fought any effort to expand wagering to off-track betting facilities (even though they approved thousands of betting locations for the state lottery).
Then came the shutdown of advance deposit wagering by the Texas Racing Commission, which said ADW betting was a violation of the Texas Racing Act.
Desperate to increase revenues, tracks and horsemen pushed for the approval of historical racing at Texas tracks – the kind of Instant Racing machines that saved Oaklawn Park in Arkansas – but that was shot down by a state judge who said the Texas Racing Commission overstepped its bounds by approving it.
And now the state legislature, with encouragement from out-of-state casino money, is piling on. First came news that a casino lobbying firm helped state lawmakers draft a letter critical of the racing commission for its approval of historical racing.
Now, those same lawmakers are threatening to strip all funding from the Texas Racing Commission as a form of punishment for the commission's decision to try and save horse racing through the approval of historical racing.
Through all of this, the once-promising Texas Thoroughbred industry is in tatters. The number of mares bred each year has fallen steadily. At last count only 814 were bred in Texas last year – a far cry from the 4,427 in 1995. Texas has slipped from fourth to eighth in breeding activity, passed by Louisiana, New York, Oklahoma and New Mexico (all of which have state breeding programs supported by alternative gambling revenue).
No one can possibly be thinking big these days. It's a question of whether or not horse racing in the Lone Star state can survive. Based on the politics of the moment, its future is not a very good bet.
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