When American Pharoah crossed the finish line at Belmont Park to become thoroughbred horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner since 1978, he provided a much-needed shot in the arm for the sport. Usually relegated to the back pages of the sports section nowadays, the Sport of Kings suddenly became a hot topic in print, on TV and all over that new-fangled social media thing that hadn’t even been imagined when Affirmed completed the last sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes 37 years ago. Whether the excitement generated by the horse with a misspelled moniker (should be “Pharaoh”) and the chewed-off tail will endure remains to be seen but racing officials at Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie and horsemen around the state are hopeful Pharoahmania will boost the industry at a time when it needs all the help it can get.
When pari-mutuel wagering was legalized in Texas in 1987 – or, more accurately, re-legalized after it once flourished and then was banned during racing’s heyday in the 1930s – the future seemed bright. After all, Texas has a long, rich history with horses, and Las Vegas has always been a favorite destination of Texans. Horses and gambling seemed to be the perfect combination. In the 1990s, three major racetracks opened: Retama Park near San Antonio, Sam Houston Race Park in Houston and Lone Star Park in the Metroplex.
But the hope that Texas would become a major racing state did not pan out. There were some good years, and in 2004 more than 53,000 people packed into Lone Star Park for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, racing’s version of the Super Bowl. Since then, however, Texas racing has mostly been in a state of decline.
The downturn can be seen on the racetrack and in the many pastures where both thoroughbreds and quarter horses are raised. Just two years before Lone Star hosted the Breeders’ Cup, Texas ranked fourth in the country by number of registered thoroughbreds foaled. Only perennial thoroughbred powerhouses Kentucky, Florida and California had more. A total of 1,952 thoroughbred foals were registered in Texas that year, but in 2013, the most recent year with complete figures, that had dropped to 576 – a decline of more than 70 percent. Texas is now outside the top 10 in thoroughbred production, with Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico among those that have raced toward the front of the pack. While the thoroughbred breed overall has seen declining numbers in the last decade, few states have matched the drop of Texas, which horsemen say has the deck stacked against it.
Despite the rapid decrease in the Lone Star State’s thoroughbred population, one need not look far from Dallas-Fort Worth to find success stories. Valor Farm, about an hour’s drive north near Pilot Point, is the birthplace of successful Texas-breds Fiftyshadesofgold and Promise Me Silver, winners of the last two runnings of the $200,000 Eight Belles Stakes during Churchill Downs’ annual Kentucky Derby festivities in Louisville. Steve Asmussen, one of the nation’s leading trainers, lives in Arlington.
“The main problem is that all the states surrounding Texas now have lucrative breeding incentive programs and higher purses that are fueled by slot machines or historical racing terminals, so naturally many of the stallions, mares, racehorses and horsemen that once were in Texas are now in those states,” said Mary Ruyle, executive director of the Texas Thoroughbred Association, which represents owners and breeders in the state. “Texas has long produced great racehorses, including 1946 Triple Crown winner Assault for the famed King Ranch, but it’s been a struggle in recent years. Even so, there are still many horsemen here who are committed to seeing the industry succeed.”
It seemed that the industry was indeed set to succeed, or at least have a better chance, when the Texas Racing Commission last year passed rules to allow for historical racing terminals at the state’s racetracks. Although the terminals may resemble slot machines, the commission, racetracks and horsemen contend they are different in that they are a form of pari-mutuel wagering that allows people to wager on previously run races (with identifying information removed so that the player cannot know the result in advance). While slot machines, or nearly any form of casino gambling, involve a person playing “against the house,” the word pari-mutuel comes from French for “to wager amongst ourselves.” So a racetrack has no interest in whether a particular person wins or loses, it simply takes a commission off the top and pays out the rest to the winning bettors, whether they are wagering on live horses or a historical racing terminal.
But the white knight that many saw as a way to revitalize the sport in Texas now faces a very uncertain future. Some Texas legislators showed their displeasure for the racing commission’s action with lawsuits and a threat to remove its funding from the state budget. At the commisson’s most recent meeting, June 9 in Austin, the first step was taken toward a possible repeal of those rules.
“We do not know at this point how historical racing will play out,” said Ruyle. “We believe it would benefit the horse industry and the state of Texas by boosting the agricultural economy as more people would find reason to breed, raise and own racehorses in our state instead of the surrounding states.”
At least in the short term, the exploits of American Pharoah, who helped attract nearly 400,000 total fans to the three Triple Crown races in Louisville, Baltimore and New York City, have caused a spike in the interest level at Lone Star Park and elsewhere.
“We had a huge crowd of almost 14,000 on Belmont day,” said Scott Wells, president and general manager of Lone Star Park and also Remington Park in Oklahoma City. Both tracks are owned by subsidiaries of the Chickasaw Nation’s Global Gaming Solutions.
Like the rest of the Metroplex, Lone Star Park has felt the impact of inclement weather this year and has been forced to cancel races on several occasions.
“We were obviously hampered by the weather, but the overall enthusiasm for this product has not waned,” Wells said.
Indeed, while the foal crop continues to slide, the betting handle (the total amount of money wagered) and purses (the amount paid out to winning horse owners) for Texas racing has remained stable over the past few years. That’s part of the reason Lone Star Park and those who own and breed racehorses in the state are still pushing on, with or without help from the Legislature, and just maybe with a little help from racing’s newly crowned superstar.
“Everywhere I go, not just at Lone Star, people are talking about racing now,” Wells said about the aftermath of the 12th Triple Crown winner. “There’s no question that it’s a major bump.”
Lone Star Park will have plenty of chances to capitalize on that interest as live thoroughbred racing is set to run through July 19. Then quarter horses, which mostly run shorter distances down the straightway, will race this fall.
It’s no sure bet that a Triple Crown winner will produce more than a short-lived boost for racing. But the early returns at least show that more people are talking and tweeting about the sport, and that’s music to the ears of racetrack officials and horsemen in Texas.
Annual Registered Thoroughbred Foal Crop in Texas
Year Foals National Rank
2000 2,035 #4
2001 2,013 #4
2002 1,952 #4
2003 1,862 #5
2004 1,747 #6
2005 1,671 #6
2006 1,476 #6
2007 1,431 #6
2008 1,202 #7
2009 1,142 #7
2010 869 #7
2011 755 #9
2012 657 #10
2013 576 #11
Source: The Jockey Club/thejockeyclub.com
Annual Thoroughbred Purses around the Region
Year Texas Louisiana New Mexico Oklahoma
2000 $31,178,957 $45,396,985 $12,266,046 $11,668,492
2001 $30,331,525 $45,775,956 $14,038,740 $10,083,581
2002 $32,601,743 $49,821,059 $16,986,181 $8,264,775
2003 $29,644,944 $58,967,227 $21,966,206 $6,720,250
2004 $42,378,500* $72,843,955 $22,662,432 $7,935,630
2005 $27,132,150 $72,031,436 $24,061,777 $8,963,630
2006 $25,932,670 $75,115,145 $29,282,717 $18,070,550
2007 $25,641,230 $95,328,892 $30,946,970 $21,077,405
2008 $23,072,690 $86,306,399 $31,866,257 $24,059,492
2009 $19,355,202 $89,461,989 $31,408,867 $23,540,178
2010 $15,787,070 $76,089,389 $30,737,667 $22,832,885
2011 $15,218,740 $86,081,780 $31,285,880 $22,846,874
2012 $15,554,320 $81,537,722 $31,542,443 $23,352,456
2013 $15,353,660 $79,896,435 $28,807,697 $22,578,287
2014 $15,022,080 $75,686,139 $30,238,509 $22,639,584
*Includes the Breeders’ Cup
Source: The Jockey Club/thejockeyclub.com
Lone Star Park Annual Betting Handle (All Breeds)
*includes the Breeders’ Cup
Source: Texas Racing Commission/www.txrc.texas.gov