Pony Up

For 364 days a year (closed Christmas), Sam Houston Race Park opens its doors to hardcore bettors who come to stare at simulcast screens. There's even a special building set aside for them on the grounds. Such is a pro's life.

But with the start of the fall '98 thoroughbred racing season, the less expedient, more inspiring live-action version has returned to the track for the rest of us who like to see and hear the horses up close and personal.

As deals go, the Race Park's not a bad one. Three dollars will get you in the door ($1 for seniors 62 and older, and free for kids under 12), and you can park for $5 (valet), $2 or zip depending on how far out you're willing to place yourself. Some nights there are free concerts after the last race (warning: these start really late) and giveaways just like if you went to a baseball game.

Race park employees are friendly -- they want the track to succeed, which it wasn't doing after it opened in April 1994. In fact, it filed for bankruptcy a year later, but has since bounced back.

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Sam Houston even offers a special kids event on the second Saturday of every month, inviting youngsters to talk with trainers and jockeys and then run a footrace on the track themselves.

You don't have to bet, but then again, that's what most people do here. Racetracks have always attracted optimists -- the owners, trainers, jockeys and bettors are all there with unshakable enthusiasm for what may be their lucky day. To make the gambling process less mystifying for novices, the basics are explained at a race education area.

Even if you don't bet, watching the horses and the people they attract is worth the 18-minute trip out of downtown Houston. Who knows, you could get lucky.

-- Margaret Downing

Sam Houston Race Park (on Beltway 8 between I-45 and 290) is open for live racing Friday through Sunday (some Thursdays). Post time for the first race is 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. The thoroughbred meeting runs through April 11 with the quarter horse season returning next summer. Call (281)807-8700 for scheduling.

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