The Texas Racing Commission is doubling down on historical racing.
Despite the pressure — and funding threats — from the Texas Legislature, the TRC voted on Tuesday to keep historical racing, a form of gambling that Texas racing insiders maintain will help save the struggling industry.
Texas thoroughbred horse racing returned to the state after the 50-year ban on parimutuel wagering ended in the 1990s. For a brief period of time the Texas horse racing industry was booming but in recent years race attendance has declined. While some states like Louisiana prop up their thoroughbred horse racing industry with fat purses drawn from race track casinos, Texas race tracks didn't (and still don't) have that option. Dwindling crowds forced officials at Sam Houston Race Park and other Texas tracks to choose between offering more races with smaller purses or offering the larger purses that tend to draw the better jockeys and horses in the industry. Soon the top horses and trainers, even the trainers who started out in Texas, had stopped bringing the good horses to the Texas racing circuit and the quality of the races started a swift decline.
While the state legislature has remained firmly anti-casino all these years, Texas horse racing industry people have long viewed historical racing as a way to pull in more money at the race tracks without having to get into casinos. Historical racing would allow race tracks to make money even when there weren't actual races being run, proponents said.
Back in August 2014 the racing commission voted to allow Texas race tracks to offer historical racing, a type of gaming where gamblers are allowed to bet on videos of horse races that have already been run. All of the identifying information, including the location and date of the race, the names of the horses and names of the jockeys, is not shown, but players can look at a skill graph from the Daily Racing Form to try and guess the outcome based on details like the winning percentages of the jockeys and the trainers.
Historical racing would let the race tracks earn more money and then the track officials could turn around and host more meets and offer fatter purses and everyone in the industry would benefit. Or so the thinking went.
However, there was a slight problem with this little workaround, since the TRC approved new rules for historical racing without getting the Texas Legislature to sign off on things. And that's where the trouble started because certain legislators were rather offended at what they viewed as the TRC flouting the Lege's authority. Once the 2015 state legislative session started up, lawmakers began threatening to defund the TRC entirely over the historical racing rules. One state senator even filed a bill seeking to abolish the TRC entirely over historical racing. None of that actually happened, but the Legislature did hold the TRC's funding hostage.
In August the TRC met and voted to uphold the historical racing rules it passed the year before. The Legislative Budget Board subsequently withheld funding to the point that the TRC was facing a shutdown. The Lege ultimately relented, sort of, funding the agency through November and then extending funding through February 2016.
Thus when the commission gathered on Tuesday they had a choice to make. They could either continue to keep historical racing rules on the books, and risk the ire of the Lege or they could drop the historical racing rules and be fairly sure the Lege would give them more funding in February. The commission was looking at three options based on Tuesday's meeting agenda: They could either vote to repeal the historical racing rules, they could vote to republish the measure on historical racing rules and have a new period of public comment or they could just not do anything at all .
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Ultimately, the nine-member commission kind of dodged the issue. With a vote of 4 to 4 with one abstention, historical racing rules stayed on the books. The commission also voted to republish the rules to repeal historical racing, complete with 30 days for public comment starting January 1.
The decision was celebrated by the Texas horse racing community. "We applaud The Racing Commission for taking a calm and studied approach to historical racing. We hope the Commission will ultimately decide that the hard working families of the Texas Horse Industry are at least due their day in court," Marsha Rountree, Executive Director of the Texas Horsemen's Partnership stated. "In the meantime, we encourage the Legislative Budget Board to put politics aside and fund the agency in accordance with the will of the Legislature so that no further damage is done to an industry already in hard times. 36,000 jobs and the entire Texas Horse industry are on the line."
Meanwhile, the TRC seemed intent on hedging their bet. During the meeting the TRC Chairman Rolando Pablos asked agency staffers to prepare a plan to shut down the agency, in case lawmakers decide to continue to strangle TRC funding over the whole historical racing issue. If more funds are not appropriated the TRC will run out of money at the end of February. The subtext of this decision is so strong it's practically text: The TRC is keeping historical racing on the books, and if the Legislative Budget Board — the crew that has been particularly angry about what they view as an unauthorized expansion of gambling — doesn't like it, they can defund the commission.
The next TRC meeting should be in early February. If the LBB really hacks into the commission's funding, it could be the last meeting they have for a while.