Just weeks ago, no one knew whether Lone Star Park would even be able to open its doors for the next racing season.
But then racing officials and state lawmakers ended a nearly two-year feud over a form of gambling known as historical racing, ensuring that horse racetracks statewide could open for business.
Now, workers at Lone Star Park are busy readying the Grand Prairie racetrack for its 20th season, which begins Thursday and will feature 50 live thoroughbred race days through July 17.
We are continuing to invest and trying to make Lone Star something the entire state can be proud of.
Scott Wells, president and general manager of Lone Star Park
“Texans love their horse racing,” said Scott Wells, president and general manager of Lone Star Park. “Even though we face unfair competitive advantages in other states, we are continuing to invest and trying to make Lone Star something the entire state can be proud of.”
Purses are up across the board, improvements are being made at the racetrack and the number of horses prepared to race is “as good as it has been in several years,” Wells said.
Despite the excitement of a new season, many in the industry have wondered whether Texas’ slumping horse racing industry can survive.
They’ve asked the state for help — if not through historical racing then through something else — to help Texas tracks compete with out-of-state operations that offer casinos, bigger crowds and bigger purses.
“It is worrisome,” said Rolando Pablos, chairman of the Texas Racing Commission. “There’s no doubt about it. But I do believe there's a silver lining.
“Now that we’ve gotten historical racing out of the way, I believe we can focus on the substantive issues of trying to improve conditions in the industry,” he said. “It seems everybody is back in the saddle.”
Local fans say they are ready for the live races to begin again at Lone Star Park.
Sam Eddlemon of Grand Prairie, a longtime horse racing fan, has been to every Opening Day at Lone Star Park since it opened and said this year will be no exception.
“Simulcast is OK, but live racing — hearing the horses come around the track — there’s nothing like it,” said Eddlemon, who recently visited the Bar & Book club at the track to make bets on races that are simulcast year-round. “I’m looking forward to it.”
When Lone Star first opened in 1997, more than 712,000 people attended races that year.
Since then, attendance has dropped, and last year, 366,270 attended live races here, according to Lone Star statistics.
But park employees and state officials alike say they are hopeful.
Year-round, more than 800,000 customers visit Lone Star Park for the two racing seasons, which offer 76 days of live horse racing, the 353 days of simulcast horse racing and year-round events including concerts, weddings and meetings, according to records.
The 28 barns housing about 1,500 horses for this new season are nearly full at Lone Star Park, and trainers are busy exercising their horses on the track every morning from 7 till 11.
The two premier races — the Texas Mile on May 6 and the Lone Star Park Handicap on Memorial Day, May 30 — offer $200,000 purses for winners. For the rest of the season, purses totaling $150,000 will be divided among the nine races of the day, said Diantha Brazzell, communications manager for the park.
“Stall applications were on par with previous years, and this year there will be an across-the-board purse increase of $1,000 per race, which in some cases is over a 10 percent hike,” said Mary Ruyle, executive director for the Texas Thoroughbred Association.
According to early projections, 40,000 to 50,000 people may show up for the opening weekend, which features concerts after the races: the Randy Rogers Band on Friday night and Dwight Yoakam on Saturday night.
Not only that, but organizers say they expect a good turnout for the 2-year-olds in Training Sale scheduled for Monday at the track.
“I’m very encouraged by what I’m hearing is going on at Lone Star,” Pablos said.
Much work has been done to prepare the 1-mile oval track for the new season.
New video cables have been installed for the cameras that broadcast the races. Auditions to determine who will sing the national anthem during the season have already been held.
Two new bars have been built; new flat screen TVs have been added to some areas in the grandstand building.
Lone Star Park features a 1-mile dirt oval track where the distance from the final turn to the finish line is 930 feet. There also is a 7/8 -mile oval turf.
And 16 trucks filled more than 400 tons of Texas dirt — sifted to remove rocks and washed to remove dust — were brought in a few weeks ago and put on the track, said Johnnie Jamison, director of facilities and track superintendent.
Workers have also been busy aerating and adding nutrients to the Bermuda grass on the turf course.
Workers are still washing windows, updating landscaping, repainting walls, replacing some floors and updating facilities for the jockeys.
A new smartphone app, LSPBet, should be available soon to let park patrons make bets without leaving their seats. The app coordinates with new digital tote provider terminals — the machines gamblers use to place their bets — in the Grandstand building.
And patrons this year for the first time will see Racing Ambassadors, about a dozen people wearing gold shirts, at the track, ready to answer questions and help patrons any way possible.
The preparations at Lone Star come shortly after a plan to help the Texas horse racing industry — historical racing, the replaying of already-run races on devices with sounds and symbols similar to slot machines — died.
Supporters have long said this form of instant racing is needed to help struggling Texas tracks compete with out-of-state operations. Opponents have long said the machines could bring a form of casino-style gambling to Texas.
Unlike slots in traditional casinos, the payoff is tied to past race results. The devices have no information that could help players identify the winners in advance, such as horse names, dates and tracks.
Racing commissioners and conservative state officials have butted heads over this issue since the commission approved rules to allow historical racing in 2014.
As worries ramped up that the agency wouldn’t receive state funding needed to stay open, commissioners voted 5-4 in February to end historical racing in Texas, capping nearly two years of lawsuits, restraining orders, funding fights and a brief track shutdown.
The commission, funded by the industry it regulates, collects millions a year in fees paid by racetracks and license holders. That money is turned over to the state, which allocates it back to the commission.
Lone Star Park is the 10th-ranked major sports entertainment attraction (based on annual attendance) in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
But last year, lawmakers put a “rider” in the budget giving the Legislative Budget Board — an agency on which state budget writers and top state officials serve — the sole decision on whether to allocate funding for salaries and other such services at the Racing Commission.
Commissioners knew that without all their funding, the agency would shut down, and tracks in Texas such as Lone Star Park would have to stop all racing.
With funding set to run out at the end of February, the commission repealed the rules and the budget board released funding through the rest of the biennium.
“We were very disappointed in the revocation, but we do feel that it provided an opportunity to bring Texas horse racing into the spotlight and educate people on the challenges we face,” Ruyle said.
Jimmy Wright, a frequent visitor to the Bar & Book, said he’s glad the historical racing machines didn’t make their way to Texas tracks.
“I personally don’t think they would help that much,” said Wright, 72, of Grand Prairie, who has been going to Lone Star every year since it opened. “I wouldn’t play them if they were here.
“If they were here, there would be too many people here,” he said. “It would be so crowded in here that I wouldn’t like it.”
Those in the industry say they hope state lawmakers who offered help will be true to their word.
“Senate leadership and other members of the Legislature vowed to help the industry, and we take them at their word,” Ruyle said. “We are eager to work with them in advance of and during the 2017 legislative session.”
But right now, the focus is on the thoroughbred season that opens in just a few days.
O.D. Simpson, for one, is ready to see the action.
“It’s exciting to get out there and cheer them on,” said Simpson, 67, of Dallas, a retiree who recently visited the Bar & Book to bet on simulcast races. “I love the way they handle things.”
Lone Star Park
- What: 2016 spring thoroughbred season
- When: April 7-July 17, every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and certain Thursdays
- Where: Lone Star Park, 1000 Lone Star Parkway, Grand Prairie
- Cost: $5 general admission. Parking, except for valet, is free.
- Age requirements: There is no minimum age to enter the grandstand for live racing, but anyone under 18 must be with a parent. And anyone placing a bet must be 21.
- Contact: 972-263-RACE (general information); 972-263-PONY or 800-795-RACE (for seating and dining reservations); email firstname.lastname@example.org to offer comments or suggestions.
- Cashing tickets: State law says winning pari-mutuel tickets and vouchers are good for one year after they are bought. They may be cashed in at Lone Star Park, or mutuel tickets may be cashed by mail. If mailing tickets in, send by certified or registered mail with a return receipt requested. Print clearly and send your ticket with name and address to: Lone Star Park At Grand Prairie, Mutuels Department, 1000 Lone Star Parkway, Grand Prairie, TX 75050.
At a glance
Here’s a quick look at the on-track total attendance at Lone Star Park since the Grand Prairie racetrack first opened.
Total on-track attendance
Source: Lone Star Park