Texas Legislature to consider Texas Horse Tradition Preservation Act

By Susan Morrison, Quarter Horse News

Val Clark, executive director of Texas HORSEA receptive audience greeted Texas HORSE (Horse Organizations for Racing, Showing & Eventing) representatives on Jan. 10 in Dallas during the Texas Thoroughbred Association’s conference and annual meeting, and the Texas Quarter Horse Association’s annual meeting.

If Texas legislators give the horse industry an equally generous response when they convene Jan. 13, it could mean a big financial boost for breeders, owners and show participants in the state.

Formed last year as a voice for the state’s equine industry, Texas HORSE consists of numerous equine association members, including AQHA, NCHA and APHA – all national organizations with headquarters in Texas. The coalition’s main goal is the passage of The Texas Horse Tradition Preservation Act, which would allow the installation of video lottery terminals (VLTs) at the state’s licensed racetracks.

There are five licensed horse tracks in Texas, including Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Manor Downs in Manor, Retama Park in San Antonio, Sam Houston Race Park in Houston and Gillespie County Fair in Fredericksburg; and two dog racing tracks, Gulf Greyhound Park in La Marque and Valley Race Park in Harlingen. While those tracks are run under the auspices of the Texas Racing Commission, the VLTs would be run by the Texas Lottery Commission.

The bill has a commmitted Senate sponsor, according to Val Clark, executive director of Texas HORSE.

A large portion of the money generated would go back into the horse industry through purses at races and performance events, while the state would receive substantial money, with its use to be determined by the Texas Legislature.

Events including cutting, reining, cow horse and breed association shows would receive money through the Performance Horse Development Fund (PHDF). The use of those funds would be restricted to Texas events, incentives and programs. If the legislation is approved, the PHDF could receive up to $7 million in the first year, according to Texas HORSE.

Jim Helzer, Texas HORSE board president and first vice president of AQHA, said efforts to promote legislation supporting VLTs in Texas has been unsuccessful in the past due to lack of preparation on the part of supporters and little coordination among the state’s horse organizations. This time, all of the major Texas-based horse organizations have thrown their support behind the same goal.

“There was a lot of disparity,” Helzer said at the TTA luncheon in Dallas. “All that is behind us.”

Helzer pointed out that neighboring states – New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana – allow VLTs, and that siphons money out of Texas by supplementing purses and providing incentives in those states. Other programs, such as the Kentucky Horse Breeders Incentive Fund, have lured stallion owners to stand their horses outside of Texas. The Kentucky program offers monetary rewards for race and show horses bred and born in the state.

“It’s important for us to convince our government to keep the money in Texas,” he said.

Clark said the intent of the legislation is “to benefit the horses, owners and breeders in this state.” The PHDF, she added, will provide fixed revenue for non-racing horses, adding to payouts at shows around the state.

“Some of our horse shows are beginning to feel the pinch that our racehorse folks have been feeling,” she said. “A conservative figure is $7 million in the startup year [for the PHDF], and there is potential growth in five years to $28 million.”

Helzer pointed out that based on current estimates, the VLTs could generate $1 billion in the first year.

“It would be a very significant stimulus,” Helzer said. “These are projected estimates only, but whatever they turn out to be, they are going to be so much better than what we have today that it would be a phenomenal success for Texas.”

The act also includes “Good for Texas Provisions,” such as line item funding for equine research, enhanced drug testing, equine retirement programs, workers’ compensation insurance, capital improvements at racetracks, and a pension plan for members. Those provisions also include revenue to cities and counties to offset the cost of necessary police and fire services, and funds to address existing illegal gaming machines, which are estimated to number in the thousands.

David Hooper, executive director of the Austin-based TTA, said those who thought the effort to get VLTs in Texas was long past are mistaken.

“We’ve heard from the naysayers that this is the same old same old,” Hooper said, adding that the unity of the state’s horse organizations is key to the success of the bill.

Recent events – including Hurricane Ike, a struggling economy, increasing home foreclosures, drops in oil and gas profits, and sales tax and business tax revenue falling short of projections – have driven home the need for additional funding for the state as a whole and for the horse industry, he said. On Jan. 12, Texas State Comptroller Susan Combs announced the state’s revenue estimate is down by $9 billion. The Legislature will have $77 billion in state revenue for the next two-year budget cycle, 2010-2011, down from $86 million for 2008-2009.

Hooper said he hoped the naming of State Rep. Joe Straus III, R-San Antonio, as Speaker of the House will be a boost because of Straus’ family roots in Thoroughbred racing. His father and grandfather are both members of the Texas Horse Racing Hall of Fame. Some legislators, he said, don’t know the impact of horse racing and events in the state, or the economic significance of the industry as a whole.

“Joe Straus knows our business inside and out because he has grown up in it,” he said.

There are an estimated 1 million horses in Texas, and the industry directly provides about 96,000 jobs. Showing contributes an estimated $1.9 billion to the state’s economy annually, with recreational riding providing $1.5 billion, racing bringing in $848 million and other horse activities adding up to $898 million, for a total economic impact of $5.2 billion.

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