Waiting for Logic

From the belt buckles to the Longhorns, things are big in Texas. How's this for big--one billion dollars. That's billion, with nine zeros.

Projections done for the horse industry in Texas show that if video lottery terminals were allowed at the state's racetracks, the amount handed on a platter to the state during the first full year of operation would be $1 billion.

You don't have to wear a Stetson, alligator boots, or even know the words to "Deep in the Heart of Texas" to understand the significance of $1 billion to any state budget.

But horsemen in Texas--and several other states as well--still wait for logic to prevail and alternative gaming to be approved. They are getting little help from where it is needed, the governor's office.

At a fund-raiser for Gov. Rick Perry in February 2004, horsemen raised $300,000 and listened as Perry spoke of helping them in their fight for VLTs. The checks were cashed but Perry has done little to foster their cause. Now he is leading in the polls as he runs for his third term, which by statute would be his last.

While many horsemen in Texas are backing another candidate in the current race, they wonder should Perry win, would he then help them with their issue simply because he won't have to worry about future campaigns.

It appears one of the reasons Perry has turned a deaf ear to racing in the state is that there is something else they do big in Texas--religion. Perry has been courting the votes of many of those organizations whose members, on moral grounds alone, oppose gambling in any form.

The numbers in Texas speak for themselves.

On the breeding side of the business, there were 631 stallions standing in Texas in 1992 that collectively covered 4,224 mares. With the state of the industry as it exists today, 2005 was a totally different picture, with 323 stud horses covering 2,866 mares. In less than 15 years, the number of stallions dropped by nearly half while the mare population sunk by about a third. Farms have closed; owners have quit.

At the annual awards dinner of the Texas Thoroughbred Association July 22, one farm owner noted how, just a few years ago, roughly 450 mares visited his breeding shed; this year it was fewer than 150.

Where have the horses gone? That question is easily answered by looking at Texas' neighbors: Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. Louisiana's slot machines began chiming in 1992, New Mexico's law passed in 1997, and Remington Park in Oklahoma began operating slots last year.

Louisiana's stallion population has risen each year since 2000; New Mexico the same since 1999. Give Oklahoma time; their machines just started helping the industry. Texas is going in the opposite direction.

On the racing side of the ledger, the numbers are just as dramatic. At Lone Star Park near Dallas, purses rose from the track's opening in 1997 to a high per day of $233,974 in 2000. Last year, the average daily purses were $213,845. Because of money from slots, little Sunland Park in New Mexico has seen its daily purses rise from $28,211 in 1999, the year before video lottery terminals, to $167,685 last year.

In Texas, another person is already beginning his third term--Larry Smith, president of the TTA. He and his fellow breeders in the state have their work cut out for them as they continue pushing for help from elected officials in an attempt to secure alternate gaming.

It is often hard to make legislators understand that raising horses is an agricultural pursuit. But it shouldn't be in Texas, where a former Commissioner of Agriculture has risen to become the state's governor.