NEW ENTHUSIAM AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR BREEDING IN TEXAS
Jeff Hooper has witnessed first-hand Texas racing at its zenith, including when Lone Star Park hosted the 2004 Breeders’ Cup World Championships, and the subsequent skid toward possible oblivion. Today the chairman and CEO of the state-of-the-art Highlander Training Center in Hopkins County says he’s the most optimistic about the future of Texas’ racing and breeding industries since Lone Star Park opened in 1997.
The reason: The infusion of purse money into Texas horse racing in 2020 after the 2019 passage of legislation that directs up to $25 million per year from the sales tax on horse feed, tack and other equine products into the racing and breeding industries.
“There’s a new enthusiasm in Texas for horse racing,” said Hooper, who spent nine years as the Texas Thoroughbred Association’s executive director and three more as Lone Star Park’s vice president of administration. “We’re seeing very positive results from this legislation. There’s no more fun than owning a racehorse, even if you own just 2 percent of that horse. When it wins a race, it’s your horse. And now there’s real economic justification to breed and train and race those horses here in Texas. We see further growth opportunities going forward.”
The average purse in 2020 was a record $26,391, with overall purses totaling $17,629,345 for 2,195 races. That was the highest since 2009, when 3,203 races were staged.
“The history and the heritage that Texas has with horse racing really provides us with a strong foundation,” Hooper said. “You go back to Assault and Stymie, all the great Texas-bred horses. And you look at all the exceptional horsemen on a national and international basis, from Max Hirsch to Carl Nafzger to Mr. (Will) Farish, etc. They’re all Texans. It’s in our blood to start with. Now that the state is helping to give us the tools to be successful, everything is cycling upward.”
Lone Star Park launched as a major player. But as tracks in other states — including adjacent Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico —received purse supplements from gaming operations, Texas participants followed the money with horses and wagering dollars and headed elsewhere.
Uptick in Breeding
Consider that in 2001, a total of 3,643 mares were bred to 439 Texas stallions, according to Jockey Club statistics for the state. That number plummeted to 405 mares bred to 80 thoroughbred stallions in 2020. The foal crop of Texas-bred horses dropped from 2,035 in 2000 to just 306 in 2020, however this number is expected to increase when 2021 stats are released after the first of the year.
But it’s a four-year process from breeding a mare to getting the subsequent foal prepared to race. The impact of the enhanced purses on the mare population and foal crop will be slower to see the turnaround statistically. But other indicators show that legislation has quickly produced its intended result. For instance, Hooper said business is up 25 percent at Highlander.
It’s a payoff for Highlander owner Larry Hirsch and other pillars of Texas racing and breeding who continued to invest in the industry when the long-term picture appeared bleak.
“Thank goodness for people like Clarence and Dorothy Scharbauer (the Midland owners of 1987 Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba) and now Douglas Scharbauer at Valor Farm, who stood commercially viable stallions and supported the Texas breeding industry - probably in spite of their own personal economic best interests,” Hooper said. “Hopefully now it makes economic sense for more people to do.”
Ken Carson, general manager of Valor Farm in Pilot Point, said the state is getting better-bred and more accomplished racehorses as stallions. A prime example is the well-bred Mr Speaker, a Grade 1 winner who sired the Grade 1-winning filly Speech while standing in Kentucky at prestigious Lane’s End Farm, owned by Farish. Mr Speaker was purchased this past fall by Lori and Mark Collinsworth and is relocating to their Forks of the Paluxy in Bluff Dale.
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Valor Farm also recently added Grade 1-placed Shoplifted, a son of super-sire Into Mischief, to its stallion roster.
Carson, a TTA board member who has worked for some of America’s top thoroughbred operations, said the best indicator of where Texas racing is headed came at the 2021 TTA yearling sale. Simply put, Texans were back wanting racehorses.
“In 2020, our sale averaged $12,715,” Carson said, acknowledging that COVID helped depress that sale. “Then in 2021, the sale averaged $18,293 - up 43 percent. The sales-topper, who was by one of our stallions, Too Much Bling, went for $175,000. I can’t imagine ever having anything like that. The median for this 2021 sale was $10,000 and in 2020 it was $5,100. The total was $3.2 million. The year before it was $1.4 million.
“Based on those kinds of numbers, the sale was incredible this year. From the first hip that went through the sale, everybody’s mouth dropped. It was really a success. And it’s even gotten tough to claim Texas-bred horses (with more people trying to get such horses) because of the purses here. And now we’re bringing a higher-class stallion into the state.
“I think it took this sale for people to say, ‘My gosh, this thing is actually working.’ … The other thing that has helped is there are a number of guys in Texas who buy two or three yearlings and then they syndicate them. That’s been a nice boom for Texas.”
Trainer Bret Calhoun, one of America’s premier trainers who has maintained a stable in his home state through thick and thin, called the legislation “an intelligently written bill that basically allows us to be self-funding.
“It’s been a big shot in the arm for horse racing in Texas,” he said. “Not only for the people in Texas racing who have been supporting it for a long time, but there’s a tremendous amount of outside interest.”
Calhoun said he gets peppered with questions from people who know he grew up in Texas and races there in addition to Kentucky, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
“There’s a lot of people looking to bring other divisions there now,” he said. “The caliber of horses has risen, their field size has risen, the betting and purses have continued to grow. You can’t reproduce horses over night, but I think the process has started to build Texas-breds back up. It’s completely turned around, generated more interest. People are talking about bringing mares there to breed. The bill is doing what it was developed to do.
“The 2-year-old in training sale last April was crazy. The horses were bringing about three or four times what you’d think they’d bring — people were so hungry to buy horses and get back into the business there. I have picked up some new owners. Some have never owned horses before. Some have just owned one or two over the years, and they have bought a lot more horses recently. Owners who had maybe backed off have come full circle again and are buying a lot more.
“I’ve got tremendous optimism now - whereas two years ago I had zero.”
Story By Jennie Rees
Jennie Rees is a leading journalist covering the horse racing and breeding industries.
She has covered the sport of horse racing for 30+ years with The Louisville Courier-Journal and in America’s most-read publications covering the sport. Jennie Rees is the recipient of five Eclipse Awards (the nation’s highest honor for horse racing journalists) and she is a member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame’s Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor. She is married to retired horse racing trainer Pat Dupuy. Family lore says that her late father-in-law, John Dupuy, rode the winner of the last race at “San Antone” before Texas shut down pari-mutuel horse racing in 1937.