The Houston Racing Festival is back on. But the fight that led to the cancellation continues.
The Texas Racing Commission (TRC) refuses to recognize the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. HISA is a federal organization under the FTC tasked with improving horse safety. The result was that signals from Texas racing venues could not be exported to providers outside Texas.
The announcement Oct. 4 that the 2023 Houston Racing Festival, part of a 43-day thoroughbred meet at Sam Houston Race Park commencing Jan. 6, is on again appears to fly in the face of the commission’s self-imposed restrictions on out-of-state wagering.
Coincidentally, or probably not, new legislation posed by Texas Republican Congressman Lance Gooden on the same day seeks to delay implementation of the act that created HISA until Jan. 1, 2024.
Texas officials see it as a states’ rights issue
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act came from the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act. HISA must develop rules that cover topics such as doping, medication control and racetrack safety. This took effect July 1. In response, the TRC cut off all out-of-state wagering and simulcasting.
The TRC believes HISA does not have authority over Texas horse racing. It says it maintains jurisdiction under the 1986 Texas Racing Act. TRC Executive Director Amy Cook has pushed for a delay in HISA’s rollout, citing a lack of transparency.
“Our goal is the prevention of regulatory chaos. The cost will be the loss of revenue in that export signal … but you cannot put a price on certainty.”
HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said the TRC refuses to talk to them and is also unwilling to give up regulatory oversight.
Gooden said in a National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) release that he believes it’s a state issue, not a federal one.
“The authority has created uncertainty and harmed the horse racing industry. State governments are best equipped to regulate their respective horse racing industries, and I will not stand idly by while the federal government once again pushes a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Eric Hamelback, CEO of HBPA, is also calling for a pause.
“HISA’s implementation so far has been inconsistent, contradictory, confusing, burdensome, and plagued by a failure to understand real-world conditions. A reasonable pause giving horsemen in Texas and across the country time to work with HISA to fix these problems before any further harm is done serves everyone’s interest.”
Results have been predictable
The effect of TRC’s decision to shut down out-of-state wagering was immediate and disastrous. There was an 87% decline in money bet at Lone Star Park.
Last year’s Houston Racing Festival generated nearly $6 million in handle. Most of that money came from avenues that are no longer available, given the dispute with HISA. Purses were projected to drop significantly as well since money bet on tracks helps fund purses at those establishments.
Something’s happening under the covers
The announcement of the proposed legislation and the re-emergence of the Houston Racing Festival leads one to believe something may be in the works that could actually work out for everyone’s benefit.
Whether it’s the delay the TRC was seeking or some sort of accommodation while the legal process continues is unclear at present, but a reasonable expectation would be for another shoe (or two) to drop soon. The purses advertised for the stakes calendar will need to come from somewhere.
Frank Hopf, Sam Houston Race Park’s assistant general manager, is just happy the Houston Racing Festival is back on. In a Texas Thoroughbred Association release announcing the meet and stakes particulars, he said he looks forward to welcoming Houston horseplayers and also new fans to the newly scheduled afternoon racing at the northwest Houston racetrack.
“The new schedule and start times present an opportunity to engage with our loyal simulcast guests and attract new fans with daytime racing. Moving our stakes races and promotions to the afternoons will provide new opportunities for everyone.”