Texas Racing Commission doubles down in historical racing dispute

Texas Racing Commission doubles down in historical racing dispute Racing season is back at Sam Houston Race Park, but its future in Texas is unclear.[/caption]

Officials with Sam Houston Race Park may have just ushered in the start of a new racing season Jan. 15, but an ongoing dispute between the Texas Racing Commission and state legislators threatens to shut down wagering at tracks statewide at the end of February.

The dispute is related to the TRC’s approval of historical racing machines. Resembling slot machines, these devices allow players to bet on past races, but all identifying information—horse names, race dates—has been concealed.

After TRC initially voted to allow historical racing at Texas tracks in August 2014, lawmakers with the Texas Legislative Budget Board criticized the commission for overstepping its bounds to expand gambling. In the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers threatened to defund the TRC if it did not repeal its historical racing decision.

TRC voted a second time to keep the rules in place in August 2015, and legislators withheld administrative funds for one day—Sept. 1—to send a message. The SHRP, along with Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie and Retama Park in San Antonio, were shut down for the day before legislators voted to temporarily restore funds through November, and then again through February.

On Dec. 16, TRC voted a second time to keep the historical racing rules in place, earning accolades from the Texas Horsemen’s Partnership. Executive Director Marsha Rountree said she believes the dispute should be settled in courts rather than having a decision mandated by the Legislative Budget Board.

"We applaud The Racing Commission for taking a calm and studied approach to historical racing,” she said. “We encourage the legislative Budget Board to put politics aside and fund the agency in accordance with the will of the legislature so that no further damage is done to
an industry already in hard times.”

The TRC will have one more meeting in February to consider following orders from the budget board before it risks being shut down again. To date, no historical racing machines have been installed at any Texas parks.

SHRP spokesperson Mike Levigne said the effects of a long-term shut down would be widespread and immediate.

“There are about 250 jobs at stake in the immediate future, just among people who work at the track,” he said. “That doesn’t include the trainers, veterinarians and the ancillary businesses that are in play. The impact gets to be really personal really fast.”

A shutdown would also have devastating effects on the future of the sport in Texas, said Rob Werstler, race director with the Texas Quarter Horse Association.

“This creates the perception that the Texas Legislature has turned its back on racing,” he said. “We know that’s not the truth, but that’s the perception.”

By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.