Texas Horse Racing Needs a Revolution

By Susan Dalebroux, Post Parade

Texas voices ...

"We view ourselves on the eve of battle. We are nerved for the contest, and must conquer or perish. It is vain to look for present aid: none is at hand."

-Sam Houston, before the Battle of San Jacinto


"Our tote board is broken."

-Sam Houston Race Park officials, canceling live racing.


Sam Houston Race Park canceled its 2008/2009 Live Thoroughbred Meet due to damage sustained by Hurricane Ike.  The Texas Racing Commission and various horsemen and track officials from Texas racetracks, including Lone Star Park, toured the facility last week, and agreed that live racing could not be conducted because there is damage to the grandstand roof as well as the electrical system so that it would leave no place to plug in a frozen margarita machine.  However, SHRP was pleased to announce that simulcast and tote machines would not be adversely affected by missing portions of the roof and/or insulation, however simulcast patrons should be wary of touching anything electric should it be raining.

The Texas Racing Commission, all clucked in agreement, and in an effort to continue to promote Texas horse racing and consider the Texas racing fan, the TRC approved the transfer of 43 of SHRP's originally scheduled 65 days of racing to Retama Park.

What??  Retama Park??

Now, there has been general wailing and gnashing of teeth as of late by Texas horsemen.  They have complained about purses not being competitive enough with neighboring states, i.e., Louisiana and New Mexico, and thus horsemen are being lured out of state, and thus the Texas-bred foal production has decreased, and thus the competition is dwindling to substandard product, and thus racing fans are preferring to stay at home and eat Tostitos on their couches while watching their big screen TVs, and thus the handle is declining, and thus the horsemen want to have the purses supplemented with money from slots, and thus this will improve the horse racing product, and thus fans will come back in droves because Texas horse racing will be the greatest in the country!

So, apparently, part of their master plan is to transfer two-thirds of SHRP meet to the hottest spot in Texas horse racing, Retama Park.  I mean, why transfer dates to Texas' premier horse racing venue and site of the 2004 Breeders' Cup World Championships, Lone Star Park, when there's Retama Park?

Let me share with you a couple of interesting facts about Retama Park, since it will be this winter's thoroughbred racing destination.  It's located north of San Antonio, actually in Selma, Texas.  Many, many years ago, Selma was known for being a great speed trap because you'd be flying down I-35 from Austin, a little bit over the posted speed limit of 70 mph, listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn on the car stereo and drinking a Slurpee from 7-Eleven.  And as soon as you had San Antonio in your sights - BAM! - you'd drive through Selma where the speed limit would instantaneously drop to 55 mph and there would be the radar-gun-toting Selma cop.  And there you'd sit, in your car on the shoulder of I-35, drinking your Slurpee and patiently waiting for the fine Selma officer to hand you your ticket, and you would look out your car window and say, "Hey, look!  There's Retama Park!"

I also discovered that Retama Park was featured in the block-buster movie, Veritas:  Prince of Truth.

According to the Thoroughbred Times [September 8, 2004],

In the scene shot at Retama, Nemesii uses her mind to make a horse fall on top of a jockey and Veritas uses his healing powers to mend both human and animal.

So, as you can see in the still below, there's Veritas healing some kind of horse in need of dental work, lying on the track at Retama ...


And Veritas healing the unfortunate jockey, played by Casey Lambert …

Regardless of its claim to fame, transferring racing dates to Retama was somewhat puzzling to me.  I envisioned heated discussions and debates and fistfights; the Texas racing industry would make great strives to keep all 65 racing dates and demonstrate tenacity, integrity, competition, and the Texan Way.

Gary West, of the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram, was part of the entourage touring Sam Houston Race Park last week.  "I expected some fireworks, but got none," he shared with me.  "The horsemen raised no objections, nor did Lone Star. And the Commission, always Houston-leaning, didn't question anything."

One can speculate that it has to do with money.  Trainer Bret Calhoun had said that SHRP had "overpayed purses from last year" and intimated that the facility was just looking for way out.  Additionally, the money in the purse fund being transferred to Retama is $3.8 million; eliminate 22 racing days and a couple of stakes races and Retama just has to generate self-supporting revenue from the handle.

So, it is not unreasonable to envision Lone Star Park, given the economy as well as MEC's own troubles, sitting on their hands instead of doing battle for the glory of Texas racing.  But what of the horsemen?  No objections?

Gary West offered his thoughts: "Many Texas horsemen would rather race at Retama, not for the weather or the facility or any of the reasons you might expect. They'd rather race at Retama simply because the competition will be easier. Lone Star would attract better horses. It's a priority that, of course, ignores the state's racing fans."

Texas racing could sure use a guy like Sam Houston.

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