The battle between the Texas Racing Commission and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority has claimed a new casualty.
Sam Houston Race Park has proposed a schedule for a 43-day meet beginning on Jan. 6, 2023. Instead of running at night, the track plans to race Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons, as well as a pair of Mondays.
Notably absent from this proposal, though, is the Houston Racing Festival. This has served as the track’s biggest day of racing in each of the last several years.
A simple story: No handle, no festival
Earlier this year, the TRC refused to recognize HISA’s authority. This meant signals from Texas horse racing venues could not be exported to wagering providers outside the Lone Star State.
Predictably, this resulted in what can only be described as a crash in betting handle. July’s meet at Lone Star Park saw an 87% drop in money bet on Lone Star’s races.
Money bet on tracks helps fund purses at those establishments. Without access to betting money, purses figure to decline significantly as well.
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.
How big a loss is this for Texas horse racing?
The Houston Racing Festival is traditionally headlined by a pair of graded stakes races. The Grade 3 Houston Ladies Classic is the main event. Founded in 2013, its list of winners includes champion mares Forever Unbridled, Midnight Bisou, and Letruska.
The Grade 3 John Connolly Turf Cup is also traditionally run as part of the festivities. Trainer Mike Maker won this race six years in a row during the 2010s, including three times with Grade 1 winner Bigger Picture.
This is not the first time a track in the southern U.S. has canceled a big day for fiscal reasons. Delta Downs, in Louisiana, made the decision to suspend the $1 million Delta Jackpot following the 2016 renewal. Despite being won by the likes of Goldencents and Exaggerator, management opted to spread that purse money around to other races throughout its meet.
What’s next for HISA and Texas racing?
Things don’t look great, but a window does exist for the TRC and HISA to come to an agreement. The local horse racing circuit is at Oklahoma’s Remington Park through mid-December. If dates are approved, Sam Houston’s dates would comprise the next Texas horse racing meet.
Individual stakes races can be suspended for one year without losing status from the American Graded Stakes Committee. Should the TRC and HISA come to terms on a compromise, Sam Houston could put the Houston Racing Festival on the 2024 schedule and retain the Grade 3 levels of the Houston Ladies Classic and John Connolly Turf Cup. However, races must carry a purse of at least $100,000 in order to be considered for Grade 3 status.