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Texas Tracks Want Historic Terminals

Andrea Young (l.), president of Sam Houston Race Park, and other Texas racetrack owners will make their case for historic racing terminals before the Texas Racing Commission this week. Proponents said the machines could help boost revenues, while opponents said they're just horse-themed slots, which are illegal in Texas.

The Texas Racing Commission will consider the issue of historic racing terminals this week. Racetrack owners in the state have been lobbying the regulators to let them install the terminals that display video feeds of previous horse races held at tracks throughout the U.S., without any identifying information that could benefit the bettor.

Proponents said the machines could create a significant revenue stream to help their struggling industry. In addition, supporters said state law does not specify that parimutuel betting only applies to live horse races.

Opponents claim the historic racing terminals simply are horse-themed slots, which are illegal at Texas racetracks. They noted historic  racing terminals do not fit into the definition of parimutuel betting, since bettors do not wager on the same races, odds do not fluctuate as bets are made and the terminals have some slot machine components.

But historic racing terminals are nothing like slots, said Andrea Young, president of Sam Houston Race Park. “We are not interested in doing something that has not been authorized in the state. We’re interested in doing something that we believe the commission has the authority to do. This is a parimutuel wager in connection with a horserace.”

Advocacy groups such as Stop Predatory Gambling Texas have sent a letter to the commission saying the legislature, not the commission, has jurisdiction in the matter. “This is clearly an attempt by wealthy racetrack owners to do an end-run around the legislature because they don’t have the votes. That’s what this is,” said Carey Theil, executive director for Grey2K, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit dedicated to ending greyhound racing in the U.S. Theil added “gambling expansion is expressly forbidden by the Texas constitution” without a two-thirds vote of both the Texas House and state Senate and a vote of the electorate.

Robert Schmidt, chair of the Texas Racing Commission since 2011, said after consulting with lawyers, the matter “appears to be clearly within our authority,” rather than the legislature. He said commissioners will look historic racing machines in a “very objective way.”

Mary Ruyle, executive director of the Texas Thoroughbred Association, said from 2000 to 2013, the estimated number of Texas mares bred with Texas stallions dropped from 3,663 to 911, a decrease of 75 percent. Also, purses at Texas races are much lower than in neighboring states like Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma where tracks supplement purses with slot machines and other gambling operations.

The 2011 “Report on the Current State of Horse and Greyhound Racing In Texas,” compiled for racing commissioners, showed attendance at Texas races has decreased 12 percent from 2004-2009, according to data from all operating racetracks. In addition, the report said in the same time period the total amount of money wagered fell more than 23 percent, the amount paid in purses declined by more than 23 percent and the number of live races dropped from 1,228 in 2005 to just 578 in 2009.

Rob Werstler, director of racing with the Texas Quarter Horse Association, said historic betting terminals would be “a shot in the arm. It could definitely turn our industry around.”

Regulators in Arkansas and Kentucky have allowed historic racing terminals, which have helped those states’ struggling racing industries. The Kentucky Supreme Court, however, recently ruled that the racing commission had the authority to sign off on instant racing, but it sent the issue back to a lower court to determine if wagering on historic horse racing violates the gambling provisions of the Kentucky Penal Code.

Other states, including Oregon, Maryland and Nebraska, have concluded that historic racing terminals are in violation of state law.

Commission spokesman Robert Elrod a decision would not be made before August.