By Gary West, National Turf Writer
December 19, 2022 — With a towering wave of momentum behind it, Texas’ horse racing season begins Friday, Jan. 6, at Sam Houston Race Park, followed by a new racehorse owners’ seminar the next day. Cue the trumpets. The Thoroughbred season continues through April 8, with 43 days of racing at Sam Houston, and then Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie will provide the stage for 44 days of racing.
In recent years, the horse industry’s progress in the state probably has been more significant than at any time since the passage of The Texas Racing Act in 1986 and the subsequent opening of major racetracks. Over the last few years, Thoroughbred purses in Texas have doubled, from $13,167,859 in 2018 to $26,489,975 in 2021, according to The Jockey Club. In other words, the purses, or prize money, returned to 2007 levels. And the typical Texas-bred starter went from earning $10,722 to bankrolling $18,062.
Progress on the racetrack inevitably leads to advances in the breeding industry. In this case, inter alia, it led to the arrival of Mr Speaker, the only Grade One winner to stand in the state who also sired a Grade One winner. And since Mr Speaker’s arrival from Lane’s End in Kentucky, his son Speaking Scout won the recent Hollywood Derby (G1) at Del Mar. Such a luminary deserves special treatment, and Lori and Mark Collinsworth created the Forks of the Paluxy Farm in Bluff Dale just to accommodate the state’s most accomplished and promising stallion. Mr Speaker’s first Texas-bred foals will take their first steps this year.
All this momentum and progress was largely a consequence of the Horse Industry Escrow Account, created by lawmakers in 2019 “to foster the growth of the Texas horse industry.” The HIEA has funneled more than $50 million into Texas purses, for all breeds.
With the purses increasing and the racing improving, one of the state’s foremost leading trainers, Danny Pish, was inspired to develop his new 1880 Training Center in Lipan. When the Texas horse industry was going nowhere, Pish had been tempted to go elsewhere, but the momentum and progress kept him home.
And so what now? Sam Houston will begin with daily purses around $230,000, according to Bart Lang, the track’s director of racing, who has worked many years in Texas racing, as well at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. But the Sam Houston schedule will be dramatically different from that of a year ago. For one thing, the track will race only three days a week: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, plus holiday programs on Martin Luther King Day and Presidents’ Day. The season will feature afternoon racing, with a first-race post time of 1 p.m., compared to last year’s largely nighttime schedule. And the 43 days are seven fewer than last year’s season.
“This will be a good experiment,” Lang said, “a good opportunity. We’ll test the weekend market and see how it all goes. Sometimes when you’re forced into something, it leads to some good ideas. Everybody at the track is very excited about the new schedule.”
Last June, the executive director of the Texas Racing Commission, Amy Cook, issued a memorandum that, in effect, prohibited the racetracks from exporting their simulcast signals outside the state. The importing of simulcast signals was not affected, nor was intrastate simulcasting. But interstate simulcasting, it was argued, would trigger the involvement of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, or HISA. So Texas joined six other states — Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming — in declining to comply with HISA.
In November, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found HISA to be “facially unconstitutional.” So Congress will have to modify the statute, and the imbroglio could very well return to the courts before it’s ultimately settled and there are, it’s hoped, nationwide standards, rules and regulations.
In the meantime, to compensate for the loss in revenue from the interstate simulcasting and, at the same time, in an effort to maintain daily purse levels, Sam Houston adjusted its season to something that looks like all-weekend-all-the-time. Cue the trumpets.
The leading stables from last season are all back, such as those of trainers Steve Asmussen, Karl Broberg, J.R. Caldwell, Austin Gustafson, Bret Calhoun and Pish. In fact, Sam Houston received about 1,800 applications for its 1,200 stalls in the stable area, Lang said. So there’s literally a waiting list.
Once again the highlights of the season will be the Houston Racing Festival, this year on Jan. 28, and Texas Champions Day, on March 25. The Festival features five stakes worth $800,000, including the $300,000 Houston Ladies Classic (G3) and the $200,000 John B. Connally Turf (G3).
The Ladies Classic has become the most significant race in the state for fillies and mares. The 2022 winner, Pauline’s Pearl, went on to capture the Troienne Stakes (G1) at Churchill Downs and to push her earnings to $1,695,200. Trained by Asmussen, the Texan who’s the sport’s all-time leader in victories and who topped the standings at Sam Houston in 2022, Pauline’s Pearl has had six workouts at Fair Grounds in New Orleans as she prepares for her 2023 return to competition.
Pauline’s Pearl winning the 2022 Ladies Classic at SHRP.
The 2021 winner of the Ladies Classic was none other than Letruska. She began her championship campaign at Sam Houston, going on to win the Apple Blossom (G1), the Ogden Phipps (G1), the Personal Ensign (G1), the Spinster (G1) and, of course, the Eclipse Award as the sport’s outstanding mare. She has earned more than $3 million in her career.
Completing the stakes of the Festival are the $100,000 Bob Bork Texas Turf Mile, for 3-year-olds; the $100,000 Bara Lass Stakes, for 3-year-old Texas-bred fillies; and the $100,000 Groovy, for Texas-breds.
Texas Champions Day will feature seven stakes, each offering a purse of $100,000, including the inaugural Texas Thoroughbred Association Derby and TTA Oaks. For older horses there will be the Richard King, at nine furlongs on the turf; the San Jacinto, at 1 1/16 miles for fillies and mares on the turf; the Spirit of Texas, at three-quarters of a mile; the Yellow Rose of Texas, at three-quarters of a mile for fillies and mares; and the Star of Texas, at one mile.
Cue the trombones.
For information on racing and special events or to purchase tickets online, go to www.SHRP.com. For reservations in the Winner’s Circle Experience restaurant call 281-807-8760.
New Racehorse Owner Preview Event
Learn how you can own and race a Texas Thoroughbred at a new owner preview event at Sam Houston on Saturday, January 7. Hear about a number of new ownership opportunities available for 2023 that can put your horse on the track and in the winner’s circle at Sam Houston during the 2023 race meet. RSVP your spot at the January 7 event at www.TxRaceHorse.com.