Politics & Government

A last hope for Texas tracks?

The races at Lone Star Park kicked off April 9. In this photo, Wagson ridden by Lindey Wade, right, leads Solar Charge ridden by Gerardo Mora and famed jockey Russell Baze on He’s a Bling to the finish in the opening race of the Spring Thoroughbred season.
The races at Lone Star Park kicked off April 9. In this photo, Wagson ridden by Lindey Wade, right, leads Solar Charge ridden by Gerardo Mora and famed jockey Russell Baze on He’s a Bling to the finish in the opening race of the Spring Thoroughbred season. Star-Telegram

Horse hooves are beating a steady path on the racetrack at Lone Star Park, but one new attraction horsemen and fans alike wanted to see there is missing.

Many in the Texas horse industry had hoped that historical racing machines — which look and sound much like slot machines as they replay past races — would be at tracks this year, drawing in fans and helping raise the amount of purses.

The machines aren’t there, though, and the issue of whether they someday can be there is tied up in the courts for now. But a measure to help horse and dog racetracks, by using some tax money to grow their purses, is before the Texas Legislature.

“The industry in Texas needs help,” said John Elliott, CEO of Global Gaming Solutions, which owns Lone Star Park and is owned by the Chickasaw Nation. “The tide is going out, the population has declined and the breeding program is declining.

“Horsemen are being forced to relocate for their livelihoods,” he said. “Texas is not competitive with other states.”

The proposal in the Legislature, which has yet to even gain a committee hearing, would be a help, supporters say, but it won’t fix the problem.

“It would be great if we could use this money to grow purses,” said Andrea Young, president of the Sam Houston Race Park. “Frankly, it still won’t put us on equal ground with our neighbors, but anything helps.

“This Legislature doesn’t seem very interested in helping the working families the horse industry is made up of though.”

This comes at a time when a variety of bills geared to expand gambling in Texas — including creating a Texas gaming commission, allowing casino gambling and letting the Kickapoo tribe run gaming devices similar to slot machines at their Eagle Pass casino — aren’t faring well.

And there’s not much time before lawmakers end their regular session on June 1.

“I am surprised that casino gambling has not had a bigger push, but our good economic situation has actually hurt casinos’ chances,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas in Arlington.

Historical racing

Historical racing, or instant racing, has been controversial in Texas.

Unlike casino slots, the payoff from the machines is tied to past race results. No information is included that could help players identify the winners in advance, such as horse names, dates and tracks.

Supporters say these machines would help struggling racetracks compete with out-of-state tracks that offer casinos, bigger crowds and bigger purses. Opponents say the devices look and act much like slot machines and would essentially bring a form of casino gambling to Texas.

Last year, the Texas Racing Commission voted 7-1 to allow historical racing one day after a Tarrant County judge declined to issue a restraining order to prevent them from voting on the issue.

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, filed a lawsuit saying commissioners lacked the authority to allow the machines. That suit was dismissed.

A second lawsuit was filed in Travis County by a coalition of charitable bingo groups that said the machines might run them out of business. An Austin judge agreed and said such decisions should be left to the Legislature.

Racing Commission Chairman Robert Schmidt said his agency won’t appeal the ruling because it doesn’t have the money for a legal challenge. But a group of racetracks and horsemen have appealed and the issue is still tied up in the courts.

If rulings had allowed the machines, they could have possibly arrived at racetracks statewide this. But the process to get them there is lengthy because it includes picking and testing equipment and having the commission sign off on any machines allowed at the tracks.

“The attempt by racetracks to do an end-around the Texas Constitution by having the Texas Racing Commission unilaterally approve the use of historical racing machines was an ill-conceived gambit that was doomed from the very outset,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

“The racetracks never had a realistic chance of being permitted to operate slot machines masquerading as ‘historical racing machines’ and the racetracks should therefore not have been surprised by the outcome.”

Some conservative lawmakers unhappy the agency didn’t back off the issue when they asked them to last year filed measures to do away with the commission or at least defund it.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, stripped $15.4 million earmarked for the commission from the state budget; state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, filed Senate Bill 364 to abolish the commission and transfer its duties to the Texas Commission of Licensing and Regulation.

“I think the TRC received Sen. Nelson’s message loud and clear,” Young said. “Eliminating the agency is a job killer and I’m not sure who wants that on their conscience for the sake of revenge.”

The budget heads to conference committee, where a select group of lawmakers will craft one final version from the House and Senate budgets, which differ. The House included funding for the commission; the Senate did not. SB 364 has been assigned to committee but has yet to have a hearing.

“Obviously we support the Texas horsemen,” Elliott said. “We would like to see some sort of relief brought to them. There are different ways to do that and hopefully, over time, we will find a solution everyone is comfortable with.”

‘Heavy handed measure’

Krause unsuccessfully argued that the House should also strip the commission’s funding from the budget.

“Every time an unelected commission continues to thwart the will of the Legislature, ... I think there should be some sort of consequence,” he said during the House budget debate. “After repeated letters, repeated lawsuits, after repeated urgings by the Legislature, ... we have not seen any change.

“I think this House should do something about it,” he said. “What we have is the power of the purse.”

A handful of Democrats stepped up, calling the commission’s defunding a “heavy handed measure to wipe them out” and stating that Krause’s proposal would take money away from the racing commission but not outlaw racing — essentially deregulating horse racing in Texas.

Krause withdrew his proposal.

Some still hold out hope for legislative measures to help tracks, House Bill 3667 and SB 1027, which proposes that certain taxes be refunded to horse racing tracks or greyhound associations to help officials create “enhanced purses” to draw more competitors.

The bills were assigned to committee but have yet to have a hearing.

“With less than 40 days until the end of the regular session, neither bill has yet to even be scheduled for a committee hearing, which does not bode well for their prospects of passage,” Jones said. “There is still time, but the clock is ticking.”

At Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, for instance, these measures could mean an increase in purse amounts by about $20,000 a day, Elliott said.

“It won’t turn the ship around, but it will stop the taking of water,” he said. “

Critics say they don’t believe this bill will be approved this session.

“I think they are going to be pretty hard pressed to find anybody around the Legislature to support them,” said Rob Kohler, a consultant with the Austin-based Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “That whole attempt to have historical racing through the Racing Commission hasn’t helped them.

“I don’t anticipate this bill moving forward at all.”

Anna Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

Gambling bills

Here’s a look at some of this year’s gambling proposals and how far they have moved through the legislative process:

▪  HJR 22 to let the Kickapoo tribe enter a gaming contract with the state to conduct Class III gaming. A hearing was held, the bill remains pending in committee.

▪  HB 3839 to allow casino gambling in certain parts of the state to generate money for residual windstorm insurance coverage in coastal areas. A hearing was held, the bill remains pending in committee.

▪  HB 2329 allows casino gaming in counties that have approved casino gaming. This bill was assigned to committee but has yet to have a hearing.

▪  HJR 105 proposes a constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling in counties where residents approve it. This bill was assigned to committee but has yet to have a hearing.

▪  SJR 34 lets the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas conduct gaming through a gaming agreement with the state. This bill was assigned to committee but has yet to have a hearing.

▪  SJR31 proposes a constitutional amendment to create the Texas Gaming Commission to regulate casino games and slot machines in Texas. This bill was assigned to committee but has yet to have a hearing.

▪  HRJ 40 proposes a constitutional amendment to create the Texas Gaming Commission to regulate casino games and slot machines in Texas. This bill was assigned to committee but has yet to have a hearing.

▪  HJR 92 would let communities hold local elections to either legalize or prohibit eight-liners. A hearing was held; the bill was left pending in committee.

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