Saving Texas Racing

Horsemen need to take action to save Texas racing.

Q-Racing Journal

Texas horsemen are called to action.

On September 25, prior to the opening of the second day of the Heritage Place Yearling Sale, a group of horsemen gathered at the Heritage sale ring to review and discuss the historical racing situation in Texas.

State estimates are that the Texas horse industry contributes $5.5 billion to the Texas economy industry and creates 36,000 jobs. Nonetheless, what well could be the best racing industry on Planet Earth is hobbled by factors outside the borders of the Lone Star State. Texas is surrounded by gaming; in just the neighboring states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico, there are more than 40 casinos, including at more than half a dozen racetracks. Texans stream into those out-of-state casinos, leave their money and return to a home where declining purses and opportunities are forcing horsemen to take their horses elsewhere.

Two years ago, the Texas Racing Commission asked its legal counsel to give his opinion as to whether the commission had the legal authority to propose and adopt rules for historical racing, which offers pari-mutuel wagering on past-run horse races using a video terminal. Attorneys for Lone Star Park and Sam Houston Race Park also voiced their opinions, and all agreed that TRC did have the legal authority to adopt rules for historic racing terminals.

With the full support of the racing industry, the Texas Racing Commission in August 2014 adopted rules to allow historical wagering at the state's horse and dog tracks. This outraged some state legislators who consider historical racing an illegal expansion of gaming, and resulted in a flurry of political activity. In November 2014, a Texas district judge ruled that historical wagering was illegal because it did not have approval of the state legislature. Texas horsemen also lost their appeal, which was held in the same court.

The Texas Racing Commission is funded entirely through fees and assessments on the racing industry itself, but state law requires that the commission collect those fees and turn them over to the state, which then reallocates the money back to the commission. During the last session of the Texas legislature, which adjourned June 1, Sen. Nelson of Flower Mound, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and member of the Texas Legislative Budget Board, declared that the State of Texas would not fund the Texas Racing Commission unless the commission repealed historical racing rules.

The Texas House passed a budget including funding for the state racing commission while the Senate budget passed without TRC funding. A conference committee then passed HB-1, the final budget with TRC funding. However, Sen. Nelson managed to insert a rider that required the commission to request $1.5 million for the appropriation period ($750,000 apiece for both years) from the Legislative Budget Board.

The Texas Racing Commission then proposed to repeal historical racing rules at their August meeting. With the entire racing industry urging them to uphold the rules, the commission voted not to repeal.

That left TRC with no funds to continue operating after August 31, which would force all live and simulcast racing to cease in Texas. Racing shut down September 1 – for 24 hours.

“Hundreds of letters and emails, and a social media effort, persuaded the lieutenant governor to allow the Texas Racing Commission to use other funds to continue operating,” said Rob Werstler, the director of racing for the Texas Quarter Horse Association. “We have been told that the lieutenant governor did not expect the TRC to vote not to repeal HRT rules and he also did not think the horse industry would put pressure on the Legislative Budget Board the way we did.”

The LBB passed a short-term measure that funds TRC through the American Quarter Horse meet at Lone Star Park.

So where does that leave Texas?

“Our message has to be about the hard-working Texans who are overlooked by a legislature that at this point really doesn’t care,” Werstler said. “We are put in a bad spot by these legislators who are trying to bring all sorts of different industries into Texas but are not trying to protect one of the oldest with the strongest heritage.”

It is about saving Texas horses, Texas horseman and Texas heritage, Werstler added.

Werstler stressed that horsemen need to spread the word right now.

“What horsemen and people in the industry need to do right now is contact the LBB to keep pressure on the lieutenant governor and the LBB right now,” Werstler said. “We have to do everything in our power to make sure the Texas Racing Commission gets funded.

“Now let’s say we do that, and the Commission gets funded – which I fully expect them to do. The money was appropriated and passed by the entire legislature. But what happens when the commission does get funded? We’re back to Square One, basically. We’re an industry dying on the vine, and we’re getting no help from the legislature. We have been told by legislators to bring them a bill that isn’t an expansion of gambling but will still help horse racing. So far that hasn’t worked. But attacking those legislators isn’t going to work either. If we’re going to get anything passed, we are going to have to work with them.”

That starts with horsemen communicating to the people holding the reins of power.

“Contact your legislators,” Werstler urged Texas horsemen. “Write, call or email your state representative, your state senator, members of the Legislative Budget Board and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to express your concern over the future funding of the Texas Racing Commission. Be polite – that’s how Texans do business. In a respectful way, ask for their support in fully funding the commission.”

Contact information for Texas legislators.

As South Dakota horseman Tom Maher added at the meeting, “It’s time for Texas horsemen to either stand up or give up.”

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