Horse racing in Texas is a shadow of what it was decades ago.
Back in the heyday, venues were packed, purses were high, and tracks drew good horses to run races.
But as other states began offering larger purses, fueled by money from casinos there, some horsemen left Texas in their dust and headed for greener pastures.
For years, horsemen urged lawmakers to add gambling machines at Texas tracks — without success. But this year, the Texas Racing Commission stepped up and agreed to let Texas tracks have the same types of machines that helped revive Oaklawn in Arkansas.
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Now the issue is tied up in court, and some say it could stay there for years.
“Texas horse racing right now is in trouble,” said Linda Gaston, an Arkansas horse owner and president of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association. “They just don’t have the money.
“I think historical racing would make a difference in Texas, but I don’t think it will ever happen,” she said. “I have talked to a lot of people there, and they don’t think those Southern Baptists will let it go. That might change, though. You never know.”
“Twenty years ago, there was a vibrant industry here,” said Ken Carson, president of the Texas Thoroughbred Association and general manager of Valor Farm in Pilot Point, which boards and races horses.
“Then around 2003-04, when all these other states around us developed casinos and put slot machines at their racetracks … we lost about 40 percent of our business.”
The total handle on live horse races in Texas was $130 million last year, compared with $360 million in 2005, according to information provided by horsemen. The average purses that thoroughbreds can win dropped to $14.5 million last year, compared with $25.1 million in 2005.
And the number of jobs in the racing industry is falling as well — to 5,961 employed at horse and greyhound tracks last year, compared with 12,147 in 2005.
But those figures don’t reflect thousands of others who work as veterinarians or horseshoers or on farms housing the horses, those in the industry say.
“It has really been bad,” Carson said. “People who live close to the border ended up moving their business to other states.”
Horsemen and others have long asked Texas lawmakers to put before voters a proposal to allow casino gambling or slot machines at horse and dog tracks. So far, lawmakers haven’t moved forward with any plan that would expand gambling.
But another proposal is on the table for next year.
Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, has filed House Joint Resolution 40, which would let Texans decide whether to create a gambling commission and authorize casino gambling at certain sites, including dog or horse tracks such as Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie.
The measure would authorize federally recognized tribes to have gambling on certain American Indian lands and would require the governor to call a special session to consider gambling legislation.
Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610