This is about horse racing, so before saying another word I should confess to a total lack of objectivity. I love horse racing.
I come by this bias naturally. My grandfather was track superintendent at a racetrack near my hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois. Growing up at a time when racing held its own as a major sports attraction, I often went to the track with my grandfather in the mornings, watching the grooms get the horses ready for their day’s work and mingling with the horsemen and handicappers as they clocked the morning workouts. At night, a friend and I would pool our allowances to split the cost of a $2 wager – if we could find an adult willing to place the bet for us.
So, for me, the Fort Worth Business cover piece by Denis Blake assessing the health of horse racing in Texas is more than a news story; it’s a call to arms for anyone who treasures memories of racing’s glory days and holds out hope that the racing business can survive the economic challenges that threaten its existence.
The most effective rescue for Texas racing would be the one employed in neighboring states such as Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana: casino gambling. Revenue from casinos and ontrack slot machines have saved racetracks in those states and elsewhere in the country. The prospects for casino gambling in Texas, of course, rank somewhere between nonexistent and “are you kidding?”
But there is an alternative that could give the racing business a desperately needed infusion of revenue. It’s called “historical racing” and the state racing commission tried to add it to Texas racetracks’ menu of betting options only to face the wrath of legislators who yelped that the commission had no authority to do so.
Historical racing involves the use of video terminals that look like slot machines but allow players to wager on previously run races without knowing when or where the races were run or which horses participated. Just like live races, the odds and payoffs are determined by a pari-mutuel system – the players bet against each other rather than against the “house,” as they would with casino games.
Racing officials say the pari-mutuel aspect of historical racing makes it a permissible form of betting under Texas law; opponents, including the powerful Senate finance committee chairman Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, say the racing commission overstepped its authority. Nelson, in fact, threatened to cut off the commission’s state funding if it didn’t abandon its plan to install historical racing machines at Texas tracks.
At a meeting June 9, the commission began the procedure of repealing the plan but opened the issue to public comment. So here’s my comment: Commissioners, don’t back down. Fight for this. Officials fought for it in Kentucky’s courts and now are enjoying the revenue produced by historical racing.
The future of horse racing in Texas is too important to be decided by a vindictive legislator who would rather throw her weight around than help one of the state’s great industries survive.
Bill Thompson is news editor for Fort Worth Business. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org