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Track Shutdowns Loom Across Texas as Racing Commission Upholds Historical Racing

During a tense meeting, the Texas Racing Commission declined Tuesday to repeal its authorization of historical racing — a move that state leaders warn could mean the shutdown of racetracks across Texas.

Two racing horses graze Tooter Jordan's New Braunfels, TX ranch on Nov. 9, 2015

Editor's note: Clarification appended.

After a tense meeting and a deadlocked vote, the Texas Racing Commission declined Tuesday to repeal its earlier authorization of historical racing, a move that could mean a statewide shutdown for the entire horse racing industry in February.

The commission has been on a collision course with several members of the Legislature since last year, when the Commission voted to authorize tracks to implement historical racing, which involves gambling on electronic simulations of old races. Critics, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, have decried the Commission's efforts as a backdoor expansion of gambling in Texas.

A state district judge ruled last year that the commission had overstepped its authority. The Texas Horsemen’s Partnership, Texas Thoroughbred Association, the Texas Quarter Horse Association and Sam Houston Race Park have appealed the ruling.

While the legality of the commission’s actions have been makings its way through the court system, legislators weren’t content to wait. They threatened to defund the the commission entirely if it didn’t repeal its historical racing rules. Defunding the commission would, in effect, dismantle the horse racing industry across the entire state, as tracks can’t operate without the commission in place to regulate them, according to state law.

In September, after a one-day shutdown, the commission and the Legislative Budget Board agreed to a temporary truce, extending funding through February. The implied condition of the extension was a repeal of historical racing — the repeal that did not pass at Tuesday’s meeting.

The board voted 4-4 to maintain guidelines for historical racing, at least until the February meeting. Victoria North, who attended the meeting as Comptroller Glenn Hegar's representative on the Commission, abstained. 

Later in the meeting, the commission voted to republish the historical racing guidelines and allow for further public comment on them, a move that will give the Commission another chance to vote on the status of historical racing before its budget runs out in late February.

Commission chairman Rolando Pablos, whom Gov. Greg Abbott appointed to the board last week after former chair Robert Schmidt stepped down from the leadership role, made clear during the meeting that he was in favor of a repeal. After the vote, he said the commission might as well begin taking steps to shut itself down. 

“This one silver bullet that was supposed to help the industry is now creating some serious side effects and some unintended consequences for this agency,” he told the crowd. The commission is “beyond the point” of changing the Legislature’s mind, he added.

Before the vote, various representatives from the horse racing industry pled with the commission to maintain historical racing’s legality for the time being. In tearful testimonies, racetrack owners, track employees and the directors of the state’s largest racing associations outlined the impact a repeal would have on thousands of racetrack workers across the state. 

Marsha Rountree, executive director of the Texas Horsemen’s Partnership association, said employees were right to be concerned.

“It’s an unusual day for me when I don’t get a call or an email from a horseman asking if there’s any hope of Texas recovering from this crisis,” Rountree testified. “I don’t know how to respond because I am not sure that we will recover.”

Rountree said industry leaders have attempted to work within the bounds of what the Legislature will allow but said members of the Legislature have provided no opportunity for dialogue about what she said is the necessity of continued historical racing.

“We didn’t just decide one day to go all rogue and poke the legislators in the eye,” she said. “During each and every legislative session this industry has gone to them, hat in hand. And each and every session we’ve been told that we need to come up with a solution.”

Commissioner Gloria Hicks, from Corpus Christi, said the emotional testimonies resonated with her — as did allegations that legislators had bullied the industry.

“We did what we thought would help the people in the racing industry in our state, and it is an industry worth saving,” Hicks said. “I feel like I have been bullied.”

I have an elementary school named after me, and we have bullying sessions,” Hicks added. “I know what it is like.”

Disclosure: Sam Houston Race Park LLC is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Clarification: This story has been updated to make clear that the commission will have the opportunity to vote on the historical racing rules again before its funding runs out.

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