Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie’s 20th thoroughbred racing season, which began amid a heap of uncertainty, concluded with Sunday’s slate of nine races and capped the sixth year of the past seven with declining attendance at the track.
Just weeks before the season was set to start, industry officials and conservative Texas lawmakers were locked in a battle over whether to disallow historical racing — a form of gambling that threatened to keep doors closed statewide.
The shutdown was averted, though, when the Texas Racing Commission voted in February to end historical racing — electronic simulations of past horse races without identification. The Legislative Budget Board, an agency on which state budget writers and top officials serve, released the commission’s funding for the rest of the current legislative session.
The tenuous start to 2016 gave way to another season of shrinking attendance at Lone Star Park, with Texas horse racing officials still fighting on two fronts to get people through the door.
The most obvious problem is that Texas tracks are not associated with casinos or larger gambling enterprises. Surrounding states have gambling regulations that allow such relationships — leading to larger crowds, bigger purses and higher-profile races.
Another problem, Lone Star Park’s communications manager Diantha Brazzell said, is the continued creep of phenomena such as daily fantasy sports. Fans now have the opportunity to add a little juice to games from the comfort of their own homes rather than having to converge on an external gaming location.
All of that added up to 362,457 in total attendance this season, down about 1 percent from 366,270 in 2015. The 2015 season saw the only increase in spring/summer track visitors in a seven-year span.
To illustrate the struggles in recent years, on-track attendance at Lone Star Park hit its peak in 1998, its second season, at 715,995. But a 14 percent decline between 2004 and 2005, followed by close to a 15 percent drop from 2008-2010 during the Great Recession, has left the track lucky to pull in half that number and has the industry as a whole searching for answers.
“What would you do to attract more spectators to horse racing?” Brazzell asked.
Purse money did rise this season at Lone Star Park from $7,004,925 in 2015 to $7,390,070. Arlington resident Karl Broberg helped his horses win big chunks of that money and was honored Sunday as Lone Star Park’s leading trainer for 2016.
Coming into Sunday’s races, Broberg’s horses had won 96 races in 284 starts and earned $1,320,929 — more than any other trainer this year. After being named trainer of the year following the fifth race, Broberg-trained horses earned back-to-back victories in the sixth and seventh races to put an exclamation mark on his three-year defense of the title.
“I’m definitely blessed,” Broberg said. “We’ve had a really productive season at Lone Star Park, and it’s special to do it here because it’s my home track.”
Steve Asmussen, another Arlington resident who was recently elected to Racing’s Hall of Fame, was named the leading owner of 2016.