February 11, 2016
Eric Mitchell, Blood-Horse
Texas racetracks will be operating at least through the end of February, but beyond that the future is far from clear.
The Texas Racing Commission has been on shaky ground since September. Because of an ugly clash with state legislative leaders over an electronic game called historical racing, the commission has been limping along on operating funds doled out in 90-day increments.
Unless the commissioners repeal the rules it adopted in 2014 to implement historical racing, the racing commission could lose its funding Feb. 29—forcing a shutdown of live racing and simulcasting March 1.
In preparation for this possibility, commission chairman Roland Pablos directed executive director Chuck Trout to draft a plan to shut the agency down. Last month Trout notified all the Texas racetrack operators and horsemen’s associations that all racing would cease as of Feb. 16 at midnight. Though funding would not run out until the end of February, Trout wanted time to complete outstanding drug tests and distribute purse money.
Trout backed off that deadline Feb. 11 with another memo that live racing and simulcasting would continue through the end of the month. Representatives of Sam Houston Race Park, now running its Thoroughbred meet, and other racing associations had appealed to Trout to keep racing going. The new shutdown date is March 1.
“The industry should take into consideration that, if the agency closes, it will not thereafter be able release any purses until and unless it reopens,” Trout stated in this week’s memo. “This is likely to affect any races for which the drug test results have not been reported, which may include any or all live races that take place after Feb. 16.”
Horsemen were pleased with Trout’s latest decision.
“There was no cause for such a premature action and most of the reasons he gave had workable alternatives,” said Marsha Rountree, executive director of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Partnership.
No one involved in Texas racing would hazard the slightest of predications about what will happen during the next couple of weeks.
Many expected some resolution Feb. 9, when the racing commission met to vote again on repealing the historical racing rules. The commission ended up adjourning without taking action because the Texas Greyhound Association had secured a temporary restraining order.
“Harm is imminent, and if the court does not issue the temporary restraining order, (the) plaintiff will be irreparably injured because a repeal of the rule will cause the Texas Greyhound Association to have lost the expenditures, time, and other resources used in the preparation of, study of, and ultimate passing of historical racing,” the restraining order stated.
A hearing on the restraining order has been scheduled for Feb. 18 at 8:30 a.m. before the Cameron County district court. The Texas Racing Commission has also scheduled an emergency meeting the same day at 10:30 a.m. to consider repealing the historical racing rules.
The commission has voted twice on repealing the historical racing rules in the last six months. On both occasions, the commission deadlocked without a clear majority on either side, so the rules survived.
Because Texas is surrounded by states that allow casino gaming at its racetracks and casino gaming is illegal in Texas, horsemen and racetrack operators see historical racing as their only option to be competitive. Historical racing machines look like slot machines, but the outcome of each wager is determined by the outcome of a previously run horse race. Because the races are run through a totalizator and the wagers are pooled, the games are considered to be pari-mutuel in nature in several other states. Texas political leaders—including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick—disagree and believe the games are the same as slot machines, and therefore illegal.
If the commission repeals the historical racing rules, then legislative leaders have indicated they will fully restore the agency’s funding. If the rules remain in place, then the agency could be forced to shutdown at midnight Feb. 29. What happens with the money in purse accounts if a shutdown occurs is unknown, along with a myriad of other details.
“There is no procedure in place for this to happen,” said Robert Elrod, Texas Racing Commission spokesman. “We would just have to leave that day. And then the rest? Who knows?”