Gary West: Impregnable ignorance threatens Texas horse racing

How could this happen? How could one person, or even a malevolent confederacy of self-serving politicos, shut down an entire industry and put thousands of people out of work? How could they force folks to sell their farms and abandon the lives they have spent years building? How could this happen in Texas?

That’s the essential question. This isn’t a compelling whodunit. Everybody, or almost everybody, knows who did it and why. But how could Texas allow this to happen? I’ve lived in Texas for most of my adult life, and I’m proud to be a Texan, proud of the state’s history and its independent spirit and, most of all, its people. I truly love Texas. That, I suppose, is why I find this to be so embarrassing, so shameful.

On Dec. 15, Rolando Pablos, the new chairman of the Texas Racing Commission, told staffers to begin “the process of shutting down.” He said the end of February will also be the end of Texas horse racing, at least for the moment. The announcement came at the commission’s meeting in Austin, after the commission refused, in a 4-4 vote with one abstention, to repeal its rules regulating historical racing machines, which many believe are essential if the state’s horse industry is to survive. On a typical day, millions of dollars – yes, millions – leave the state and find their way into various gaming machines in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas and Louisiana; historical racing machines just might encourage a few of those dollars to stay home, where they could find their way into purses.

So don’t misunderstand. I’m not embarrassed that the commission refused to repeal the rules – I’m proud of them, in fact, or at least proud of the commissioners who wouldn’t be bullied. But I’m embarrassed and ashamed that they were even “asked” to repeal the rules. Historical racing has been approved by rule elsewhere, in Kentucky most notably, but here in Texas the issue has some legislators running through the streets like so many Chicken Littles.

For nearly a year, the Legislature has tried to coerce the commission to repeal the controversial rules by threatening to withhold the funding necessary to continue racing. Texas racing actually funds itself in every way, but the money, of course, must first flow through Austin, and the Legislature controls the spigot with a vindictive hand. In September, the racetracks had to shut down for a day when funding dried up. But legislators reached a temporary compromise, and then in November Gov. Greg Abbott appointed two new members to the commission, including Pablos. But the new commission still couldn’t produce the votes to repeal the rules, and so there’s to be another shutdown. What an embarrassment: Breeding season is about to begin, and Texas horsemen don’t even know if horses will be able to race here three months or three years from now.

Legislators opposed to historical racing argue that it represents an expansion of gambling, and their ignorance is impregnable. The historical racing machines would be confined to racetracks. (By the way, gambling of all sorts, from bingo to lottery games to “eight-liners,” is ubiquitous in Texas.)

A racetrack sells bets on horse races, just as the Justin Boot Co. sells boots. With the historical racing machines, a racetrack simply puts the betting on races in a quick and flashy package that’s more appealing to some, just as the Justin Boot Co. might put its boots in a brightly colored box.

The legislators also argue that the racing commission has exceeded its authority. Only the people of Texas have the right to approve historical racing. But this argument is even more ridiculous than specious since for many years the Legislature has refused to allow the people of Texas to vote on such issues, knowing the voters would approve the machines overwhelmingly. But if few people pay much attention to such arguments, it’s probably because they think they know another possible reason, perhaps the real reason, for the legislators’ opposition. It’s a reason that doesn’t get much attention.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate, has received $150,000 in campaign contributions from Tilman Fertitta, whose Landry’s Inc. owns the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino, which recently opened in Lake Charles, Louisiana, located about two hours or so from Houston. Fertitta, like some other gaming interests in neighboring states, also has been generous in giving to state senators. And so, is it coincidental that the pressure on the racing commission to repeal the rules has come largely from the Texas Senate?

But in discussions about historical racing, these facts, which at the very least provide an interesting context, seldom get aired. Nor is the infamous letter much talked about these days. Back in February, the Senate Republican Caucus sent an incendiary letter to the racing commission in opposition to historical racing and the new regulatory rules. But the letter, as it turned out, according to The Texas Tribune, was actually drafted in part by Locke Lord, a lobbyist for Landry’s Inc. and Fertitta.

It’s also embarrassing that so many people insist on describing historical racing machines as being like slot machines. You can tell where somebody stands on the issue simply by whether he makes the slots-like comparison. But that’s another fallacy, another specious argument that could be and should be extinguished as easily as a birthday candle on an infant’s cupcake. Historical racing machines – and they’re various in terms of how much information they provide and how many bells and whistles ring and ding – operate on a pari-mutuel platform, as all betting on horse racing must by law, which means the bettors compete against each other. With slot machines, on the other hand, bettors play against the house. It’s a huge and defining difference, but one that frequently gets lost among those whose ignorance is impregnable.

It’s hard to say what the commision’s vote and Pablos’ prepare-to-shut-down order will mean. Gov. Abbott will probably bring in a new and shiny commissioner who has passed the litmus test for compliance, and in February, just before the fatal shutdown, the commission could repeal the rules, consigning historical racing to the ditch. That’s where Texas horse racing has been for some time. And that, more than anything, is what’s so embarrassing and shameful.