By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Off track betting is what we have to have, and that won't happen until at least 1997. There is just nothing to be done until 1997. Our sources said we had enough votes if it hadn't been filibustered."
As for the steady decline in attendance, horsemen can only speculate, and most speculate the same way: It isn't all to do with a lack of OTB or opposition to gambling. "This is just a guess," said Keating. "But it is pretty much believed that the lottery and casino gambling in nearby states have divided up the [gambling] dollar.
On a Saturday not long ago, at the little convenience store near Trinity Meadows, Keating wandered in to inquire--out of curiosity--just how many Lotto tickets the clerk had sold that day.
Well, $18,000 worth.
Her reply told him plenty. "Handles are flat," said Keating. "We are within one percent of a year ago."
Trinity Meadows is still making it, running in the black every year--though the profits have been slipping. In 1992, Trinity's first full year, the profit was $3.1 million. The profit was $1.8 million in 1993 and $1.3 million last year. "Attendance is down this year," said Keating. "Our attendance is down 11 percent, about 40,000. Sam [Houston] is down 23 percent. Bandera closed. Retama just opened. The three dog tracks are down 18, 22 and 28 percent."
Memorial Day weekend, for instance, the handles at Trinity, Houston and Retama were $2.9, $2.8 and $2.1 million respectively. "Those are OK," said Keating. "But the overhead [at a track] is so high."
Trinity's weekly payroll is about $100,000. The track provides stables at no charge--which amounts to a significant water and sewer bill when you're talking about 900 horses' worth of manure a month ($25,000 a month to be exact). The track also provides ambulance service. Such are the "little" things one might not consider.
Lone Star and other new tracks are learning from their predecessors' mistakes.
"Sam Houston ran itself into the ground," says John Naylor, public relations director at Retama. "They announced a big handle [to open] and made big projections, which is what you have to do to attract jockeys. They offered a $150,000 handle every day, [and] they didn't make half that. They were paying close to $65,000 to $75,000 a day of the track's money [to make up the difference]. They were losing millions of dollars, they ran it into the ground, and filed Chapter 11. Now they're doing pretty good.
"We offered a $75,000 handle and had to cut it to $40,000. We lost some jockeys." Retama lost more than $1 million last year, according to Naylor. Bandera, a nice track near San Antonio, went out of business trying to go head-to-head with Retama. Big mistake.
Johnson's plan at Trinity Meadows is to offer 130 live race dates and have simulcasting (with betting) from other national tracks on the remaining dates, avoiding head-to-head competition between Dallas and Fort Worth for live racing.
He also plans to market the hell out of the sport, offering a family fun park within the facility, at I-30 and Beltline, as well as concerts and rodeos. Johnson says he already may have lured the Western Days rodeo away from its longstanding Traders Village home. In short, it's clear Johnson has plenty of new and old ideas for making money at his new park--with or without horses.
Because Texas horse folks--except perhaps those in Fort Worth--are banking on the oval in the dirt between the defunct water park and the defunct wildlife park to prove that their statewide industry can survive.