April 11, 2013

Lone Star Park places $11 million bet to be more than horse track

The horse racing track has repositioned itself into an entertainment and social venue.

Officials at Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie are hailing the opening of the track’s 17th thoroughbred season Thursday night yet still trudging uphill in the face of a stiff wind in a state not exactly friendly to their business.

Horse track administrators across the state have again made their biennial trip to Austin seeking help from the Texas Legislature. They have little hope, though, in gaining the assistance of a membership that in past sessions has been unwilling to pass measures, such as permitting slot machines at tracks, that would boost the sport with increased revenues and purses.

Lone Star Park, though, isn’t waiting on the good graces of legislators.

Officials have adjusted, fully repositioning the track into an entertainment venue and not just a horse racing facility.

That’s not to say the racing has taken a backseat. Thursday night, $11 million worth of improvements, made over a three-year period, will be unveiled, including a new track mixture that officials said promotes better safety and consistency for the horses and jockeys.

The 50-date season begins with a 6:35 post time for the $50,000 Premiere Stakes that follows opening ceremonies.

But for customers to the Grand Prairie track, there now is much more to do than forecasting trifectas.

The Bar and Book, formerly known as the simulcast pavilion, offers more of an upbeat pub and restaurant. The Silks Dining Terraces have been renovated, and a concert series, featuring some of the music industry’s top acts, is scheduled.

“This latest round of improvements are probably the most significant in our life cycle, other than the Breeders’ Cup, which was a temporary event in 2004,” said G.W. Hail, Lone Star’s vice president and assistant general manager.

“It’s a big commitment. [The evolution] of the facility is something we’ve been trying to do since we opened. There have been some bumps in the road along the way.”

Among those bumps have been ownership changes and bankruptcy proceedings three years ago.

Hail, though, decreed the track healthy under Global Gaming Solutions, citing primarily a 4.7 percent increase in simulcast wagering last year, compared with 2011 levels, a little over $100 million against $95 million.

Much of that, Hail said, is because of the concept of the Bar and Book, a year-round simulcast facility with a core constituency, but which doubles as a sports bar with big screens showing sporting events and UFC fights.

A poker tournament every Thursday night is also offered.

The clientele is a “mixed bag,” said Joe Mastellone, the bar manager.

“The atmosphere is much more of an upbeat bar atmosphere,” Mastellone said.

Said Hail of the regulars at the Bar and Book: “Some people go golfing, some go to the lake, these guys come to Lone Star Park. It’s like Norm at Cheers: They want their favorite bartender to remember their name, their spot, their food. They come for the sociability.”

The trick still is finding ways to increase revenue of the on-site racing.

During last year’s thoroughbred season, $15 million was wagered, Hail said. Going against the track are laws in the surrounding states that permit other gaming options, such as slots. The revenue from those allow the tracks to attract better horses with bigger purses, “draining resources” from Texas, Hail said.

So far, that’s been a no-go in Texas, which has a strong lobby against expanding gambling in the state.

This year’s best chance might be the joint resolution in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, which would let voters decide.

Track operators are also fighting against online account-deposit betting companies that accept wagering illegally from Texas, where it is prohibited. The attorney general’s office ordered those operations shut down and almost all companies have complied, Hail said.

Hail said that officials at Lone Star have been told anecdotally that those businesses handled $60 million to $100 million in wagering last year.

“We get no form or revenue from that wagering ... the horsemen, the track, the purses, we get nothing from that,” Hail said. “That shows you the box we’re in in Texas because we don’t have an alternative form of wagering.”

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