Critical Crossroad

By Gary West
The message echoed through the grandstand and spread through the crowd. In the stable area, people from Europe, California, Kentucky, and New York gladly picked up the message and passed it along. Now, if only the so-called leaders in Texas aren't deaf.

Horse racing issued to Texas a resounding message during the 21st Breeders' Cup. The message was a beckoning, an invitation. Specifically, it was this: If Texas can increase purses significantly at its major racetracks, then the state's horse racing industry can join the vanguard. Get those purses up, and Texas will become a racing center. Increase purses, and the kinds of horses and people and business that passed through Grand Prairie, Texas, for the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships will be passing through more frequently than once a decade.

Wearing blue jeans and a belt buckle the envy of every cowboy in the state, Lord Derby, along with his sensational filly Ouija Board, showed up to deliver the message personally. Ogden Mills Phipps, one of the sport's stalwarts, went to Billy Bob's, the world's largest honky-tonk, to reiterate the message.

And 53,717 people came out to lend their strength to the resounding message that Texas can be one of the horse racing capitals--if it chooses to be. No Breeders' Cup crowd in New York was ever larger than the one at Lone Star. Except for years when the event has gone to Churchill Downs, no Breeders' Cup crowd since 1993 has been as large.

Trainer Patrick Biancone was first to deliver the word. He traveled to Texas with Sense of Style for the Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) and Magistretti for the John Deere Turf (gr. IT). Arriving at Lone Star nearly two weeks prior to the Breeders' Cup, he also brought horses for supporting stakes. Biancone found the local golf courses, and his stable became the local leader in cowboy hats. And along the way, the Frenchman became open in his affection for the area.

Biancone called Lone Star a "lovely" place, and "a good track for good horses." He liked the stable area and the grandstand. And he especially liked the Western culture because cowboys, he said, also love horses.

"If Texas can find a way to raise purses," he said, "then everybody will want to race here." If the purses were sufficient rewards, Biancone said, he would like to race regularly at Lone Star.

New York and Grand Prairie are separated by more than miles. And Hall of Fame trainers Shug McGaughey and Allen Jerkens said they didn't know what to expect when they arrived at Lone Star. A rectangular track, people with boots for feet, hot sauce for salad dressing--they had no idea what they'd find.

After a few days in Texas, both said they were impressed with the facility and the people. If the right race comes up, the right situation, they said they'd happily return.

And the morning after the Breeders' Cup, the sport's all-time leading trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, became effusive in his praise. Lone Star handled the Breeders' Cup beautifully, he said, and Texans embraced it warmly.

The state's lawmakers, however, haven't been especially hospitable to horse racing. That's why purses at Lone Star Park, after ascending steadily in the track's first years, have leveled off at an altitude of about $240,000 a day. While purses in neighboring states have increased, thanks to other sources of revenue and expanded distribution, purses have gone soft in Texas, which doesn't have off-track wagering, or account wagering, or slots, or card rooms, or anything supplementary.

Lukas said he "wouldn't hesitate" to return to Texas to race if he sees an attractive race with an alluring purse. But such races and purses are few in Texas. The racetracks in the state are shackled by anachronistic restrictions.

The Breeders' Cup was obviously the greatest day in the history of Texas horse racing. But will it be the last great day? The sport has arrived at an intersection in Texas, and the horse racing industry rallied admirably to offer advice on which way to turn.

With this Breeders' Cup, horse racing--its leaders, competitors, and fans--sent a message so thunderingly emphatic that even the lawmakers in Austin had to hear it. Now, if only they have the intelligence to understand it.