Racetracks lament

About 60 years ago, when parimutuel betting was first legal in Texas and Arlington Downs was a horse mecca, my memaw, a divorced mother of five, put up jockeys at the house to bring in some extra money.

I heard much about them while growing up--especially the nutty one who talked to himself in the kitchen. My mother and Uncle Bud, the youngest in granny's family, would hide inside the kitchen cabinets to listen to him ramble on about past races and imaginary pals. It all made me wish I had a crazy jockey to watch in my family's kitchen, where there was little excitement except for the day the Boscoe bottle blew up all over the ceiling.

The wood-frame remnants of the Arlington Downs track--one of the world's best in the 1930s--was bulldozed over for a Jack-In-the-Box about three years ago. And I doubt any of the lunch-hour Jumbo Jack crowd even knows horses once raced beneath their feet--or that grandpa once lost his paycheck at a betting window near the drive-through.

Not that such ignorance is surprising. These days it doesn't seem possible to know much of anything about horse racing in Texas--unless you're hiding in the kitchen cabinet reading the occasional racing column in the paper.

It's a far cry from the sporting and economic giant that racing in Texas was supposed to become.

Horsemen concede that poor marketing and bad publicity about industry finances have hurt attendance here. Though the sport was legally reintroduced to Texas way back in 1987, it still struggles for recognition--and more important, betting-window business--almost a decade later.

"And probably will until 1998 or even '99," said Corey Johnson, general manager of the beleaguered Lone Star project and former general manager of Remington Park in Thackerville, Oklahoma.

Lone Star, rising just west of Dallas, on I-30 and Belt Line Road in Grand Prairie, sits between a pair of failed entertainment parks. It is a foreboding setting for a facility that is the hope of a troubled industry.

Attendance at all three of the state's big-city horse tracks--Sam Houston in Houston, Retama Park in San Antonio, and Trinity Meadows west of Fort Worth--is down over the last three years. Ditto on the dog tracks. (Yes, there are dog tracks--three of them--in Texas.)

Sam Houston ran itself into the ground and Chapter 11 bankruptcy by offering way-too-ambitious handles (bettor payoffs). Retama did not open in time for a full season this year. Right now it remains largely an impressive $81 million oval with high hopes and a large construction debt.

Trinity Meadows, outside Fort Worth, has less debt--about $4 million--but the scheduled opening next year of Lone Star in Grand Prairie threatens its livelihood, says Trinity CEO Tom Keating.

Of course, Lone Star is no more than a dirt oval carved into a muddy field right now--a fitting symbol of the fitful struggle Texas horsemen have waged to install a track in the Dallas area. The Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association feels the fight to put a track in the Dallas area is so vital to the entire Texas parimutuel industry that it's pledged $3 million to help complete the track.

Even with that pledge, Lone Star's struggle continues.
Most of the horsemen in the Fort Worth area have fought the Grand Prairie track, says Keating. "We feel it will hurt us. It is a concern, to be honest.

"The thinking is the overall market will increase. But when Lone Star opens, it would be like splitting the handle [at Trinity Meadows] because you are drawing from the same market. A survey a few years ago showed about 30 percent of our attendance to be from Dallas and east. We will hold downtown Fort Worth and west. But it will hurt.

"I'm sure Lone Star disagrees."
Trinity Meadows formally agreed not to try to block Lone Star's growth. A smaller donation from the Horsemen will help assure its viability. But it is obvious Trinity won't be sponsoring any bake sales for the new Grand Prairie neighbor.

"We don't discuss that much," said Johnson. "There was an agreement."
Another topic Johnson and his new neighbors don't enjoy discussing is off-track betting. OTB is the number-one generator of funds and fans for horse racing. But during the 1995 Texas legislative session, parimutuel opponents used a filibuster to block a bill to introduce off-track betting; it can't happen now at least until the next session, in 1997.

But that may be too late to avoid crippling the Texas industry. Lone Star, in one of the state's largest markets, is still struggling to get off the ground. Investors granted tracks for smaller cities are biding their time. And you have to wonder how many tracks already open will survive until the OTB windfall arrrives.

"Of course all of us hope we're going to make it," says Keating, whose spartan but attractive track sits off I-20 near Weatherford. "But the one thing we need is OTB, especially to get [into] markets like Midland and Odessa where there are no tracks.

"The way the legislation was worded before, off-track betting parlors had to be within a 50-mile radius of the track, which defeats the whole purpose.

"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.

That's good.
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.

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Jennifer Briggs