Proposed Texas Racetracks Win Licenses

Faced with intense gaming competition in neighboring states, Texas racetracks have seen their handle and attendance tumble and many of their horses simply leave in recent years. Nevertheless, three groups applied for racetrack licenses, and at its March 20 meeting, the Texas Racing Commission granted all three a Class II license, albeit one of them conditionally.

The state classifies its racetracks, with Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Retama Park near San Antonio, and Sam Houston Race Park all Class I. Class II racetracks, which are smaller, are required to race fewer days. The only Class II racetrack operating in the state is Manor Downs in Austin.

A new racetrack hasn’t opened in Texas since 1996, when Lone Star opened its Post Time Pavilion. Two licensed Class II racetracks--the Austin Jockey Club and Saddle Brook Park in Amarillo--did not open.

But the groups licensed most recently all indicated they intend to build their racetracks and open for simulcasting in 2008, with racing soon to follow. And their openings, they insisted, doesn’t depend on a bill currently in the state legislature that, if passed, would allow video lottery terminals at the racetracks.

Despite the unfavorable climate for racing in the state and the indifference of the state’s lawmakers in recent years, supporters of the Valle de loss Tensors application argued that a racetrack in the Rio Grande Valley would be both welcome and prosperous. With a local population in McAllen of 569,463, according to the 2000 census, and with an equally large population just across the border in Reins, Mexico, Valle de loss Tensors could soon offer some of the best Quarter Horse racing in the state, many have predicted.

Many, if not most, of the state’s Quarter Horses are on ranches in the Valley.

“We want this racetrack in our city,” said McAllen mayor Richard Cortez. And a procession of state legislators and civic leaders stressed the point.

Commission chairman R. Dyke Rogers said he had never seen so much support line up behind any issue before the regulators. But not everybody supported the application.

Representatives for Valley Race Park, a Greyhound racetrack located in Cameron County, about 35 miles from the proposed Valle de loss Tensors site in Hidalgo County, argued their business would be affected negatively and severely should another racetrack open in the area. Valley Race Park asked the commission not to vote on the application but instead to refer it to the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Such a move would be necessary before denying the application.

Though three abstained, the commissioners approved the Valle de loss Tensors application. Owned in partnership by the Amanita family of McAllen and managed by Retama Park, the track could open for simulcasting next year. Plans call for 18 days of racing initially, a seven-furlong track, and a stable area for 800 horses.

The racing commission meeting began at 9 a.m. Central time and stretched well into the evening. Much of the day’s discussion focused on the other two racetrack applicants, both of them in Laredo.

Texas law prevents any party from owning more than 5% of more than two racetracks. And since MAXXAM Inc., parent company of Sam Houston Race Park, also owns Valley Race Park, its Laredo application was questioned. But the commission acquiesced, with its approval not final until May, and then only if MAXXAM has sold one of its other racetrack properties, presumably Valley Race Park.

The other Laredo racetrack will be owned in partnership by a Retama Park group with the Amanita family. Both Laredo groups indicated their intention to offer a schedule of 20-30 days featuring Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses.

Bob Bork, president of Sam Houston, said his group intends to build a racetrack in Laredo regardless of what the legislature might do in terms of gaming. And he said he believes his group’s racetrack can compete successfully with another one in the area.

Commissioners questioned whether Laredo could support two racetracks--even those with very limited seasons. And they expressed considerable annoyance with groups that might try to “stockpile” licenses in the hope the state eventually allows gaming devices at racetracks.