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North American Trainer ISSUE 19 (EARLY SPRING 2011)

North American

ISSUE 19 (EARLY SPRING 2011) $6.95

www.trainermagazine.com

THE QUARTERLY MAGAZINE FOR THE TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE THOROUGHBRED

CALIFORNIA DREAMING Six industry figures share their hopes for 2011

STARTING INJURIES Understanding the jump action Publishing Ltd

MARES IN FOAL Do they improve with racing?

STANLEY GOLD The trainer with a midas touch THE OFFICIAL MAGAZINE OF THE


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at the crossroads

Lone Star Park hosted the Breeders’ Cup in 2004 but has had to cut back on its racing schedule in 2011

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The dogs on main street howl, 'cause they understand, If I could take one moment into my hands, Mister, I ain't a boy, no, I'm a man, And I believe in a promised land. Bruce Springsteen –“Promised Land”

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It wasn’t that long ago, 1987 in fact, after the Texas legislature passed The Racing Act, that some pressbox wag in Louisiana said: “Last horseman out, turn off the lights.” That was the expectation in those days: that horses and horsemen from around the country would flock to Texas once the state allowed pari-mutuel racing. Texas, after all, was widely considered to be horse racing’s “promised land.” By Gary West

F

OR Texas, no expectations were too big. And no racetrack would be too sumptuous, too grand, too alluring for Texas. After all, this was the home of King Ranch and Nelson Bunker Hunt. Bill Shoemaker was a Texan. And D. Wayne Lukas had raced horses at the backwater bush tracks of Texas long before he ever took a horse to Louisville, Ky. This was horse country, always had been, and always would be. Even after a political conflict in the late 1930s led to the closing of Alamo Downs in San Antonio, Arlington Downs in Arlington, Epsom Downs in Houston, and Fair Park in Dallas, Texans continued with steadfast insistence to race their horses. And over the years, Texans raced some of the best, owned some of the biggest farms, and traveled everywhere just to go to the races. Horses couldn’t be called to the post at any major racetrack in America without a Texan within earshot. And, of course, with their rather unusual perspective on distance, Texans didn’t hesitate to pour into neighboring states to support Oaklawn Park, Ruidoso Downs, Remington Park, Louisiana Downs, Delta Downs, and Fair Grounds, which all sat just down some road a piece. From Dallas and Houston, buses made daily roundtrips to nearby racetracks, or at least Texans considered them nearby. And so it became a reasonably and commonly held belief that horse racing would not only thrive but explode with

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“Texas is clearly struggling, and at some point there’s just not going to be enough live product to fill our races” Bryan Brown reverberating popularity when it returned to Texas. That, however, didn’t quite happen. Whether it was a plan that went awry or a hope that had to be deferred remains to be determined. Either way, though, Texas racing now finds itself, awkwardly and strangely enough, at a crossroads. If something doesn’t happen soon, one racetrack general manager predicted, racetracks could close.

If something doesn’t happen soon, a horsemen’s representative predicted, the state’s breeding industry could be reduced to mom-and-pop operations, the bulk of the state’s foal crop produced from backyard liaisons. And the necessary “something” would have to come out of a state legislature that has been indifferent to the horse industry for most of the last 70 years.


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Yes, the situation is dire. But that’s the state of racing in the erstwhile promised land. Its growth and popularity once regarded as inevitable, Texas racing instead has slipped into a moribund coma of irrelevance. How did this happen? The laws and rules that control and regulate Texas horseracing were written, well, in the last century. Outdated almost from the moment it passed, the state’s Racing Act has become a hoary anachronism. Texas has no off-track betting, no advanced deposit wagering, no gaming diversity. In other words, Texas racetracks have no way to augment purses; more important, they haven’t the means to compete for both fans and horses with racetracks in neighboring states that have such advantages. For several years, the sheer strength of the markets, along with Texans’ inveterate interest and the allure of the promised land, kept the sport going strongly enough, albeit without ever reaching its potential. Racing’s championship events were run in Texas for both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses. Texas remained the home of the American

Quarter Horse Association, and two of the state’s racetracks, Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie and Sam Houston in Houston, hosted the Racing Challenge Championships. Lone Star also was host to the 2004 Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, which attracted Ghostzapper, Azeri, Afleet Alex, Funny Cide, Ouija Board, and even the Earl of Derby. But was that Breeders’ Cup a last hurrah for grand expectations and possibilities? Was that just a teasing, tantalizing glimpse of what might have been? Maybe. Over the next five years, Texas purses declined 29%, and the quality of racing declined with them. During that same period, the racetracks in neighboring states, their distribution enhanced by ADW and OTB, their purses fueled by other forms of gaming, such as slot machines and video poker, saw dramatic increases in total purses – 6% in Arkansas, 23% in Louisiana, 30% in New Mexico, 140% in Oklahoma. Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., where the menu includes Instant Racing

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“The racetracks are in survival mode, but how much longer can they survive?” Bret Calhoun machines and “electronic games of skill,” offers purses that average $340,000 a day. New Orleans’ Fair Grounds, which has slot machines, offers about $335,000 a day. And both racetracks are able to present the kind of quality racing that invites a large audience and national attention. Meanwhile, Lone Star offered the highest purses in Texas last year at $150,000 a day. “Texas is clearly struggling,” said Bryan Brown, the chief executive officer of Retama Park near San Antonio, “and at some point there’s just not going to be enough live product to fill our races.” Because of the purse discrepancies, there has been an exodus of racehorses from Texas in recent years. Trainers Mike Stidham, Chris Hartman, Michelle Lovell, and Donnie Von Hemel, for example, have taken their large stables elsewhere in accordance with the oldest tradition in the sport, which is to reach for the purse. Steve Asmussen, Bret Calhoun, and Danny Pish, while still prominently involved in Texas racing, have sent an increasing number of their horses to racetracks in nearby states, or to Kentucky or even California. A native Texan who had a seven-horse stable at Lone Star in 1997, Calhoun has become not only one of the top trainers in the region but in the country, having won two Breeders’ Cup races last year. He said he’s hopeful for Texas racing, but he said he also realizes that racing could soon disappear from his home state.

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“The racetracks are in survival mode,” he said, “but how much longer can they survive? I don’t know. But I’ve had to position myself so that I can home to race, and that would be great, but also so that I can race at other major racetracks.” Calhoun was the leading trainer at Lone Star last year, while also maintaining a large stable at Churchill Downs. And he’ll race at Sam Houston, but he’ll have most of his horses at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park. A trainer can no longer wait for opportunities to come along but instead must pursue them, even if that means loading up a van every couple of months and hitting the road, especially if the roads extend beyond Texas’ borders. Bloodstock also has left the state. The foal crop that’s shrinking nationally is shriveling up in Texas. Only 1,180 Texasbred Thoroughbreds were registered with The Jockey Club in 2009, down 42% from the 2,034 registered in 2000. Even the number of Quarter Horse foals in the state has declined, down 32% over just a fouryear period, from 24,139 in 2005 to 16,464 in 2009, according to the AQHA. With fewer horses and less money, Texas tracks have had to trim their schedules. Retama, for example, ran 16 days of Thoroughbred racing last year, down from 32 in 2009 and 35 in 2008. With only a Friday-Saturday schedule, Retama numbers jumped, up 38% in attendance from a year earlier and 30% in

on-track handle, but with only negligible impact, Brown said, on the bottom line and with purses still languishing at about $83,000 a day. “It’s a downward spiral,” Brown said. “What we’re doing will enable us to maintain a decent number of horses per race, but what we really need is a level playing field.” Similarly, Lone Star Park has reduced its Thoroughbred season from 60 to 52 days this year in an effort to get purses up to $175,000 a day. And Sam Houston purses are expected to average $160,000 a day, a record for the track, during its 27-day season, shortened from the usual 60 days. “We have three of the top markets in the country in Texas,” said Sam Houston’s chief operating officer, Andrea Young, referring to Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio, “but some of the least recognizable racing the country. We’re operating under a Racing Act that was written before the Internet even existed. Horseracing needs to give people what they want, and they want options.” A former president and CEO of the Houston Comets of the WNBA, Young said that if the current session of the legislature ignores the needs of the sport and horsemen, another racetrack will probably be forced to close in the near future. Manor Downs in Austin closed last year. Foremost on the industry’s wish-list is video lottery terminals at racetracks. Legislation that would have opened the door for VLTs didn’t progress outside of committee when Texas lawmakers convened in 2009. But with the state facing a $27-billion deficit for 2012-2013, the horse industry is hopeful that it will get at least an airing of its problems in the current session. And, as Young pointed out, this is an issue that’s “wildly popular with the people of Texas,” who by a 60-40 majority, according to a recent poll, support the expansion of gaming in the state. “We’re just hoping something happens,” said Lone Star general manager Drew Shubeck, who has been actively lobbying on behalf of the sport in Austin. “We’re surrounded by states that have more flexibility and more ways to generate purse money, and so we’re at a great disadvantage in Texas.” And if nothing happens in Austin, Shubeck said, contraction will continue in the Texas horse industry. The state’s racetracks are all losing money, persevering in the hope that better times await them just around the corner or that Texas can still be the promised land, but without immediate legislative assistance, without a hand, they’ll have to trim even more, and that could mean fewer days of racing, consolidated meetings, more


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horsemen and more horses leaving the state. The ululations will sound like a giant washing machine in the throes of a spin cycle. Moreover, if the lawmakers leave the sport languishing in the last century, the breeding industry could all but disappear. Some of the state’s foremost breeders already have sent most or all of their broodmares to bordering states or to Kentucky. Dave Hooper, the executive director of the Texas Thoroughbred Association, said nearly half the broodmares in the state have left in recent years. Many farms have closed, and few will remain, he said, if the situation doesn’t change soon, which would reduce the Texas breeding industry to “mom-and-pop operations.” Adding to all this is the uncertainty surrounding racetrack ownership in Texas. In September of 2009, a bankruptcy court approved the sale of Lone Star by Magna Entertainment to Global Gaming Solutions, which is owned by the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. The sale, however, still has not been approved by the Texas Racing Commission, which means the racetrack languishes in bureaucratic limbo while it waits an Attorney General’s opinion regarding an anachronistic residency

“We’re operating under a Racing Act that was written before the Internet even existed” Andrea Young

requirement in The Racing Act. Nor has the Texas Racing Commission approved Sam Houston’s joint venture, which was announced in September. Penn National Gaming purchased 50 % of Sam Houston, Valley Greyhound and a proposed racetrack in Laredo, Texas. Penn National and Global Gaming could contribute significantly to any discussion in Austin, if only they’re allowed to find their voices before the current legislative session ends in May. If Texas were to allow VLTs at racetracks, purses could quickly rise to $500,000 a day at Lone Star, according to projections, Hooper said; purses would jump to $400,000 a day at Sam Houston and to $300,000 a day at Retama. Texas would begin to look like the promised land indeed, and horses and horsemen from all over the country would flock into the state. All those horses thought lost would return overnight. Virtually abandoned farms would reopen, and new ones appear. But if at the end of May, as the legislators pack up and prepare to go home, they have ignored the horse industry or if they have spurned it, they may just hear reverberating through the state the words of some Texas pressbox wag: “Last horseman out, turn off the lights.” I

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Texas at the crossroads  

The dogs on main street howl, 'cause they understand, If I could take one moment into my hands, Mister, I ain't a boy, no, I'm a man, And I...