Texas Racing Industry Hopeful that 2013 Legislative Session Unlocks Doors

Texas Racing Industry Hopeful that 2013 Legislative Session Unlocks Doors
by Martha Claussen  (Courtesy of SureBet Racing News)

April 2013 – Every two years the elected officials of Texas convene in Austin to review a myriad of bills and legislative documents. For close to two decades, members of the Texas racing industry have appealed to lawmakers for legislation that would allow video lottery terminals, or VLTs, at racetracks. Legislators have been implored to acknowledge the massive amount of money leaving the state with Texans who support gaming in neighboring states of Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

The compelling economic impact studies have pointed out the benefit to the state in revenues for education, agriculture and tourism.

In 2011, more than 26 gaming bills were introduced and the Licensing and Administrative Procedures committee passedConstitutional Amendment, HJR 137, to authorize the legislature to legalize and regulate the conduct of one or more types of gaming involving wagering in Texas, contingent on approval by the voters at a statewide referendum. Unfortunately, the deadline passed without the required 100 votes, and therefore, nothing further occurred in that session.

However, progress has been made in the 83rd Texas legislative session, and two bills have been filed and sent to committee.On Feb. 22, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-District 20) filed Texas State Senate Joint Resolution No. 36 and enabling Senate Bill No. 789 that call for a constitutional referendum to allow video lottery games at licensed horse and greyhound racetracks and by Indian tribes under the regulatory authority of the Texas Lottery Commission and the Texas Racing Commission. This bill has been assigned to the Senate Business and Commerce Committee.

Subsequently, on March 6, Rep. Richard Raymond (D-District 42) filed companion legislation HJR No. 121 and HB No. 2729, also calling for a constitutional referendum to allow video lottery games at licensed horse and greyhound racetracks and by Indian tribes. Review for this bill has been assigned to the House Licensing and Administration Committee.

Let Texans Decide!
One of the greatest frustrations of the battle to get legislative help has been the failure to get bills from the House to the Senate so that the public can vote for expanded gaming in Texas. In 2012, a new initiative called Let Texans Decide! was established. The campaign is a coalition of state business leaders, horsemen, community organizations, and Texas citizens committed to passing legislation at the Texas Capitol that will put the issue on the ballot for the voters of Texas to decide.

Studies and polls have firmly established that an overwhelming majority of Texas voters, regardless of political party or geographic region, want the right to decide this issue for themselves.

Let Texans Decide! embarked upon a campaign to get support from the equine and racing industry with social media and a very simple web link for people to sign up and receive updates. More than 8,800 citizens across the state have lent their names, and the highly respected Sen. John T. Montford led a public affairs campaign to allow Texans the opportunity to vote on the expansion of gaming. As a successful Texas businessman as well as serving in the state Senate for 14 years, Sen. Montford has served as an ardent backer of giving the public voting power to decide and stop the exodus of dollars out of state.

“Like most Texans, I’m frustrated seeing billions of our hard-earned dollars fleeing the state,” said Montford. “Senator Carona, Senator Hinojosa and Representative Raymond have each authored legislation that puts the issue in front of the voters, allowing Texans to stop the hemorrhaging of billions of dollars to neighboring states.”

Sam Houston Race Park president Andréa Young has been heavily involved in legislative efforts to aid the Texas racing industry. Young, who joined Sam Houston in 2007, is encouraged with the recent developments in Austin.

“Senator Corona’s bill is the first bill that has put racetracks and casinos on the same playing field,” said Young. “Horsemen have three vehicles for expanded gaming; two in the House and one in the Senate. We are seeing unparalleled bipartisan efforts in the Texas House and Senate. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”

The month of April will play a pivotal role in whether the bills will get out of committee and advance to a House and Senate vote.

Texas Horsemen Struggling
Purses are funded by racetracks, state breed funds and handle, but casino revenue has greatly enhanced the numbers in neighboring states. Without that added revenue, horsemen in Texas suffer mightily. Sam Houston Race Park in Houston and Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino in New Mexico were running Thoroughbreds within days of each other in March. Sunland Park is located just west of El Paso, Texas, but as a result of racino dollars, it is able to offer $12,200 for a claiming race that Sam Houston Race Park ran for $7,500. Sunland’s non-graded stakes offers a purse of $85,000; Houston’s is $50,000. There is a similar disparity for Quarter Horse purses, with Remington Park in Oklahoma City sometimes offering three times the money for the same conditions in Texas.

Feed, vet bills, salaries for backstretch workers, horse trailers and other expenses are the same for horsemen running in Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. The purses, sadly, are not, and more and more horsemen are faced with either shipping out of state or simply closing their operations.

Mary Ruyle, executive director of the Texas Thoroughbred Association (TTA), knows the importance of this legislative session. Many prominent Texas breeders have left the state and, without a strong breed program, funding for Texas-bred racing programs and stakes has been greatly impacted. She and her board of directors have seen a growing number of stallions and broodmares being shipped to bordering states that offer higher incentives.

“TTA is working diligently to track legislation beneficial to horsemen,” said Ruyle. “We have kept our membership informed and involved through weekly email and postcard updates, encouraging them to contact their legislators to voice support for these bills.  There is a cooperative industry effort between the breed registries, horsemen’s organization, racetrack operators and the member organizations of Texas HORSE to visit legislators, provide them with industry information and seek their support.”

Horsemen are optimistic about the developments so far in 2013. Judd Kearl operates a training center in Madisonville, Texas, and runs both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses. He has won five training titles at Sam Houston Race Park, but had no choice but to ship to Louisiana and Oklahoma to keep his operation afloat.

“I really like the way it’s going this year,” said Kearl. “Things are better and there is more agreement on how to approach the lawmakers.”

One of the state’s leading Thoroughbred trainers, Danny Pish, concurs. He has won the training title at Retama Park for the past 13 years and continues to be one of the top conditioners at both Sam Houston and Lone Star. Pish resides in Cibolo, Texas, just minutes from Retama Park. For the past three years, he has shipped a string to Remington Park in Oklahoma and sent some of his better horses to Fair Grounds in New Orleans. In addition to running for higher purses, Pish wishes legislators would understand how many jobs are impacted when Texas is surrounded by states that have expanded gaming.

“I am just one guy with several employees, but if we had gaming in Texas, so many more jobs would be available,” stated Pish. “We’re not just talking about racing; jobs at farms, feed companies, tack shops, veterinary clinics. It’s unbelievable how much money is going out of state. If legislation passes, the equine and racing economy would benefit, and a huge number of people in our industry would not have to make their living out of state.”

Dan Fick is executive director of Texas H.O.R.S.E, an organization comprised of breed organizations including Thoroughbred, American Quarter Horse, Arabian, Cutting Horse and American Paint Horse Association. They support VLTs at racetracks as a needed revenue boost to the state’s breeding and agricultural industries. They have also been working diligently to introduce and pass legislation to help Texas regain its leadership position within the American horse industry.

“Our numbers are down 50 to70 percent across the board involving foal crops, stallions and race dates,” states Fick. “Bordering states, fueled by racinos, paid out $215 million in purses in 2011; Texas horsemen ran for just $24 million. It is clear to see why our horsemen are racing elsewhere.”

Texas H.O.R.S.E  has organized “Horse Week at the Capitol” April 1-5 and has asked horse owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys, track employees and racing fans to come to Austin to make their voices heard. Members of the racing community will make the trip and walk the halls of the state capitol explaining why they need the support of their representatives and senators to get behind the bills supporting VLTs at Texas racetracks.

Fick and other organizers will make sure that everyone who comes to Austin to support “Horse Week at the Capitol” is armed with facts and figures for their elected officials.

“We have $2.9 billion exiting Texas, but we did not wait until the last minute to state our case,” adds Fick. “We have been making visits and delivering feed buckets filled with horseshoes, feed, industry magazines and other items. Our goal is for the legislators to see how many people, associations and companies are affected when Texas is denied.”

The groundwork has been laid, and the figures cannot be ignored. There is cautious optimism that lawmakers are listening and that one of the bills will successfully get out of committee and proceed to the next step.

“We are taking it one day at a time, but have worked hard to ensure that legislators know that our industry is hurting,” said Young. “Texans need to have the chance to vote on this issue.”

Once again, the race is on, and bills to give Texas racing the impetus needed to be one of the top racing and equine states in the country, have been filed. Horsemen, racetrack officials and individuals who work in and support the industry are hopeful that the 83rd Texas legislative session will move forward to level the playing field for the Texas racing industry.