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Gary West: Texas horse racing mired in a mess made of politics

🕐 8 min read

If you watched the recent political debates or looked at the polls, you couldn’t have avoided concluding that Americans don’t like politicians. We elect them, quickly become disappointed and disenchanted with them and then – well, some Americans, it would seem, loathe politicians.

The problem seems to be that there’s a chasm between the people and their elected representatives. A profound disconnect. Politicians have lost touch, and many, maybe most, Americans resent them for it. Trying to understand this, I have only to look at my home state and my favorite sport. Into the gaping chasm that separates the people from the politicians, Texas horse racing has fallen.

You might have not noticed it since it happened on an inconspicuous Tuesday, but the state’s racetracks shut down for a day when the legislature withheld the funding necessary for the Texas Racing Commission to function. The shutdown was, more than anything, a ploy, a gunshot (Texas legislators love guns) into the dirt to intimidate the Texas Racing Commission and force the commissioners to behave themselves – behave, that is, according to the legislative expectation of deference. The state’s politicians weren’t trying to kill racing, at least not intentionally.

They probably want racing to survive, in some negligible way, because as long as it does, they’ll receive money, perhaps only a little at this point, from racing interests; but the beefy politicos, if recent history can be taken as an indicator, aren’t going to allow racing to prosper, not when they’re receiving large sums of money from casino interests in neighboring states – or so it appears to these eyes. And so there’s the chasm between the people and their representatives. Most Texans care about the sport and the racing industry and the thousands of jobs it creates; the politicians care about, well, something else entirely.

About a month after Dan Patrick was elected lieutenant governor of Texas last year, Tilman Fertitta opened his Golden Nugget hotel and casino in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Fertitta had donated $50,000 to Patrick. Fertitta has donated another $100,000 this year, according to Follow The Money, a nonpartisan organization that tracks political contributions. Located about two hours from Houston, the Golden Nugget is brimful of 1,600 slot machines, 60 gaming tables and eager-to-bet Texans. If the Golden Nugget is anything like the other casinos that have sprung up like mushrooms just across the border, most of its customers are Texans. And how many of those Texans would drive to Lake Charles if instead they could find similar entertainment at Sam Houston Racetrack? That’s a question the Golden Nugget probably hopes will never be asked.

Patrick, who presides over the state Senate, also received $125,000 from the Kickapoo Indians, who operate a casino in Eagle Pass, near the border with Mexico. Last October, when the legislature was trying to figure out just how it would respond to a Texas Racing Commission that had made an unprecedented move of actually attempting to take some positive steps on behalf of the sport by approving rules regulating historical racing devices, the Kickapoos made large donations, according to the San Antonio Express-News, to several Texas senators, including $10,000 to Joan Huffman of Houston, the GOP Caucus chairwoman, and $10,000 to Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, the Senate budget writer. Huffman also received $27,523 from Fertitta. In addition, she and Nelson received $10,000 from the Chocktaw Nation, which operates casinos in Oklahoma. And so it goes in Texas.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting that these politicians and others like them are self-serving weasels who would sell out their neighbors and their own state to the highest bidder. No, I would never suggest such a thing, for in truth the process is something of a tradition and has been going on for decades, all the way back to the infamous Jack Abramoff and beyond. For many years, horse racing has tried, with little success, to make progress against a current of money flowing into and through the state. Austin, the state capital, has become a viridescent swale where such money collects.

But, of course, horsemen have money, too, although not quite as much, it would seem, as the casinos. And for years, into horsemen’s meetings and conventions, politicians have walked with their hands out and have departed with their pockets full, the result being that some of the same politicians who accept money from casino interests in neighboring states also receive money from racing interests. The Chickasaws, who own Lone Star Park, for example, gave $25,000 to Huffman and $10,000 to Nelson.

It’s an old story. The state’s politicians encourage horsemen and racetracks, express heartfelt love of the horse and offer support. And when the legislature convenes and the casino cash arrives, the support evaporates. Of course it does: So long as horsemen dream and casinos depend on Texans, the state’s politicians profit from maintaining the status quo. For horse racing, though, a critical moment has arrived: The status quo could be fatal, the chasm tantamount to oblivion. It’s a shocking situation in a state once regarded as horse racing’s promised land.

In a 1987 referendum, Texans overwhelmingly expressed their support for horse racing and their eagerness to welcome the sport back to the state. (It had been absent since 1937, a casualty of, yes, a political conflict.) And once an onerous tax and a lethargic racing commission got out of the way, the Texas racetracks succeeded, not quite to expectations perhaps but in a way that encouraged investment and inspired dreams. Skip Away, Real Quiet and Game On Dude, as well as many other stars, raced here; Bob Baffert, Jerry Bailey and Todd Pletcher, as well as many others, raced here. But by 2004, when the Breeders’ Cup and Lord Derby came to Lone Star Park – yes, even then – the state’s racing industry had slipped into decline, largely because Texas could not meet the competition in neighboring states.

Texas is surrounded by casinos and racinos in Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. They all profit, some of them extravagantly, from Texas visitors. They also profit from Texans who bet illegally (according to the Texas Attorney General’s opinion) over the Internet. Meanwhile, Texas racetracks have no off-track betting, no account wagering, no gaming. They have nothing, in other words, that can augment their purses. As far as horse racing goes, Texas lawmakers and politicians make believe it’s still 1990.

While purses at nearby racetracks in neighboring states have swelled with casino and ADW revenue, Texas purses have fallen precipitately. As a result, there has been an exodus of horses and horsemen from Texas, where, according to many horsemen, it has become virtually impossible to breed and race a horse profitably. The only reason trainers such as Steve Asmussen and Bret Calhoun still race here is that Texas is home. The same can be said of many owners. Purses at the state’s largest racetrack, Lone Star Park, have sunk to levels unseen since the track opened in 1997. And over the last decade, the Texas foal crop has declined 68 percent, according to The Jockey Club, meaning that very soon there might not be enough horses here to fill a starting gate. Most of the state’s horse farms have shut down; others have seen declines in business of 50 percent or more. The declines have swept away jobs and opportunities and hopes.

And so in an effort to toss horse racing a life preserver, the Texas Racing Commission approved rules for Instant Racing, the gaming machines that are based on historical races and that arguably saved Oaklawn Park. The machines could have given Texas racetracks and horsemen hope. But casinos saw them as a threat, and so, not surprisingly, the legislature – or some legislators – objected, saying the commission exceeded its authority, and withheld funding. That led to the shutdown and the current imbroglio. But the legislature has restored funding temporarily, giving Gov. Greg Abbott time to appoint more tractable commissioners. And soon the status quo will be restored, too. But can Texas horse racing, already reduced to irrelevance, survive the status quo?

In Texas, just as the state flower is the bluebonnet and the state pepper the jalapeno, the state vice is hypocrisy. While the legislature balks at allowing Instant Racing at racetracks, it approves of thousands of locations for selling lottery tickets and scratch-off games. Even more common than lottery outlets are “eight-liners,” slot-machine-like devices that are legal because, supposedly, they don’t pay out (wink, wink) in cash rewards but rather in dolls and trinkets and teddy bears. Eight-liners seem to be ubiquitous, in convenience stores, bars, restaurants and “game rooms” all over the state, and it continues to amaze that so many people can play until late into the night for a chance to win a teddy bear. A floating casino called the Aransas Queen, which offers craps, slots, cards, and roulette, docks near Corpus Christi. It will soon offer sports betting, too. And then there’s the flood of money leaving the state to bet illegally over the Internet, with none of it ever getting back to the racetracks or to purses.

In recent years, poll after poll has shown that Texans favor allowing racetracks to diversify by installing gaming devices. Texans support racing and eagerly hope to see Texas racing return to prominence. Texas politicians, however, prefer the status quo. That’s the chasm. And at the bottom of that chasm, Texas racing is a moribund mess.

This isn’t about what’s best for the sport or the economy or the state. This isn’t even about what Texans want. It’s all about politics and politicians. And if this situation is exemplary, then Americans have good reason to loathe.

Gary West is a Fort Worth resident and one of the nation’s top horse racing writers. He has covered racing for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas Morning News and is a columnist for ESPN.com, where this column originally appeared.

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