Commentary

Is Texas racing dead?

Updated: September 15, 2012, 5:27 PM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

"Sin ain't sin if good people do it."  Shannon Edmonds, head of governmental relations for the District and County Attorneys Association of Texas.

If you've noticed Texas horse racing at all lately, you've probably noticed that it's dying. But don't mistake this death for anything natural. This will be murder. And I know the murderer's identity.

Yes, I've watched enough Law & Order to know that to make a case I need to adduce a weapon and a motive, but that's easy because there have been so many weapons over the years  candid indifference, purulent stupidity and exponential hypocrisy, as well as the lotto, the Internet and the slots, but not the slots you might think, or not only those, oh no, but the ones right here in Texas, the fruit-spinning, bell-ringing slot-machine-look-alike gizmos that aren't even called slots for fear that just saying the word might turn the speaker into a pillar of salt.

More than $2 billion rings and dings through these gizmos annually, and, of course, these are dollars lost to horse racing and horsemen. State and local governments profit from the machines in the form of taxes and licensing fees. And the machines aren't even legal, not really, not as gambling devices anyway. Morever, hundreds of millions of dollars flow out of Texas in the form of wagers over the Internet, they're also dollars lost to horse racing and horsemen, and that's not legal either. Yes, horse racing's getting killed here.

As for a motive, that's easy, too, because in Texas  but wait: Lest a sudden crash into volubility keep me from fingering the killer, perhaps I should supply some context.

With Epsom Downs in Houston, Alamo Downs in San Antonio and Arlington Downs between Dallas and Fort Worth, horse racing was very popular in Texas in the 1930s, according to historical accounts. In 1934, Arlington Downs' attendance averaged 6,734. Lawrin, who would go on to give Ben Jones his first Kentucky Derby victory, raced at Arlington Downs in 1937. But that was also the year the legislature repealed the law allowing pari-mutuel gambling in the state.

Was the first attempt on horse racing's life? Maybe, but Texas had more horses than Florida had suntans, and Texans weren't going to let some troglodyte in Austin tell them they couldn't race. And so some raced their horses at small, non-pari-mutuel tracks in the state, such as Lubbock Downs, where the great Dash For Cash made his debut. And many, such as Willard Proctor and Bob Kleberg of King Ranch, simply raced elsewhere, and everywhere, from California to Kentucky to New York to England.

So many cowboy hats, in fact, remained actively involved and so many fans from Dallas and Houston and San Antonio traveled around the country and routinely drove hours to neighboring states just to attend racetracks that the sport regarded Texas as something of a promised land. Just wait until Texas gets racing again, horsemen said; that'll be the place to go.

Only it hasn't worked out that way. What was expected to be a promised land for racing could become instead a wasteland. Attendance, handle, purses and dates  everything has fallen and faltered. At Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie, located between Dallas and Fort Worth, not far from the old Arlington Downs site, purses have sunk lower than they were when the track opened in 1997.

But perhaps the best metric of decline is the horse population. Between 2000 and 2010, the foal crop, or number of Thoroughbreds born in the state, declined 59.06 percent, according to The Jockey Club. And it gets worse. So far this year, according to Dave Hooper of the Texas Thoroughbred Association, only 640 Texas foals have been registered in the state, which would represent a decline of 68 percent since 2000. Farms have shut down and something that once couldn't have been imagined has happened: Texans have loaded up their horses and left.

Texas racing was once so promising, too. It's seems fanciful now, but only eight years ago, Lone Star Park was host to the sport's championship event, the Breeders' Cup. So what happened?

Well, nothing happened. That's why horse racing is dying. Local and state officials are killing horse racing with their benighted indifference. They're killing horse racing with their ignorant and unsympathetic inertia. And while doing nothing to enable racetracks to be competitive, they're also doing nothing to protect the sport from predators. Officials are killing the sport with their longstanding ostrich-strategy on gambling.

Yes, Texas has strict gambling laws. Slot machines are illegal here. Racetracks can't have them. And yet, according to Don Hoyte of TexasEconomicImpact, there could be as many as 150,000 slot-machine-look-alike gizmos in the state.

They look, ring and ding like slot machines, but they're called eight-liners. They're not illegal as long as there's no cash payoff for winning. There can, however, be prizes. And so, wink wink, people play to win toilet paper and stuffed animals. Game rooms overflowing with such machines reportedly have opened up in several counties where people can play until the small hours of the morning because, I suppose, they fear a future shortage of toilet paper or hope to create a zoo of stuffed animals, wink wink.

In an excellent piece of investigative journalism, in the Austin American-Statesman, Eric Dexheimer writes: "Among law enforcement officers and prosecutors, the near universal consensus is that the rooms can't thrive without operating outside the law and paying cash."

Dexheimer points out that several counties and cities have come to look upon these eight-liners as a rich source of revenue. Duval County, for example, charges an $800 licensing fee for each machine; so far this year, the county once famously implicated in the "stolen" election of 1948 has collected nearly $600,000 from game-room operators. And tiny Gregory, Texas, pop. 2,000, has collected about $800,000 in licensing fees, which will cover 80 percent of the city's entire annual budget.

"Part of the new unspoken arrangement between the game rooms and local officials," Dexheimer writes, "is, as long as the money flows, potentially inconvenient legal questions are left unasked."

Shannon Edmonds, head of governmental relations for the District and County Attorneys Association of Texas, quoted by Dexheimer, suggests that the state's law on gambling devices is intentionally vague. In other words, it's intentionally easy to ignore.

And so that's the weapon, or one of them, officials are using to kill racing: monolithic indifference. Government's first and foremost role is to protect. But in Texas, there's little or no effort to protect horse racing from illegal competition.

"Certain groups have historically opposed gambling of any kind in Texas," Hooper said. "That's why there are strict gambling laws, and so it's puzzling that we have this huge proliferation of gambling. And it's not regulated at all. Who knows what those machines pay out? It's just incredible."

Although Dexheimer writes about South Texas, where the slot-machine-look-alike gizmos seem most conspicuous and numerous, the problem is statewide. I've seen the machines in truck stops and quick stops; I've even seen them right down the road from Lone Star Park. Some people just can't get enough toilet paper and stuffed animals, I guess.

The irony is that if slot machines ever become legal for the state's racetracks, there would probably be fewer gambling machines in Texas than there are right this moment.

For years, of course, Texas racetracks have pushed for legislation that would allow them to have slot machines. Every poll has shown an overwhelming majority of Texans would approve such legislation. But neither the polls nor public approval matters. And what really matters leads to the motive for murdering horse racing: Getting the support of the political party that dominates state elections requires a candidate to act as if he has been in a coma for 20 years and isn't even aware that slot-machine-look-alike gizmos and Internet gambling even exist. Yes, it's hypocrisy of Krakatoan magnitude.

And so in Texas, where gambling's illegal, there are more than 1,200 licensed operators of charitable bingo games and about 16,000 locations for buying lottery tickets. It's estimated that Texans bet $1 billion illegally on sporting events each year, $2 billion illegally on slot-machine-look-alike gizmos and several hundred million illegally over the Internet, and none of that money finds its way to the state's racetracks or horsemen. By the way, Texans take another $4 billion annually to casinos in other states. But state officials do nothing, either to protect or assist. And that's murder.

The only thing missing is a body