By Jennie Rees, National Turf Journalist
Grand Prairie, Texas – April 20, 2022 -- Lone Star Park celebrates its 25th anniversary season this year with the continued optimism that has permeated Texas racing since passage of the 2019 legislation that channeled a portion of sales tax on horse feed and supplies into purses.
The Grand Prairie meet runs April 28 through July 24, most Thursdays through Sundays, plus Memorial Day May 30 and July 4. There is no racing on Thursdays May 5 and 26, June 2 and 30 and July 7. Marquee stakes days include the Lone Star Million Day on Memorial Day, Lone Star Showcase Day on June 19, Summer Turf Festival on July 16 and Stars of Texas Day on July 17.
“Texas racing has revitalized since they passed that bill,” said trainer Austin Gustafson. “We’re excited. Things are really looking good.”
Gustafson’s career has paralleled the resurgence of Texas racing, with 2020 and 2021 being breakthrough years for the 29-year-old trainer, who won 24 races last year at Lone Star. He said the overwhelming majority of his owners are from Texas, want to race in Texas and have responded to the enhanced purses.
Lone Star Park is scheduled to pay out $12.8 million to horse owners over the 48-date meet, averaging about $268,000 a day.
“My clients have boosted their budgets significantly with the purse increase,” Gustafson said. “These guys I work for all started spending more money. The more horses, the more tax. I think the legislation is definitely doing its job.”
Lone Star’s silver anniversary comes on the heels of a record-setting meet at Sam Houston Race Park, on which more than $103 million was wagered during the 50-day session that ran Jan. 6 through April 9. It marked the second straight year that the Houston track wagered more than $2 million a day. A record $5.97 million was bet on Jan. 30, the Houston Racing Festival.
Horsemen are expecting big things at Lone Star as well.
“The quality has improved dramatically in a short period of time, regardless of the caliber of the race,” said five-time Lone Star champion trainer and five-time leading owner Karl Broberg. “You’re seeing old faces that had abandoned Lone Star come back as well as new faces. People are just running their better stock there, as opposed to the lesser stock that they were able to get away with for those who had split stables.”
Agreed Bret Calhoun: “Texas racing has gained a lot of momentum the last two years. I felt last summer was the best quality of horses they’d had there since the early days of Lone Star, so I thought it required a bit better horse to win the maiden and allowance races. You get better purses, you get better horses, fuller fields. It’s a domino effect, and I think you’ll see more of that this year.”
Opening day will include a 25th anniversary hat giveaway as well as a Steve Asmussen milestone celebration. The Hall of Famer comes into the Lone Star meet as North America’s all-time winningest trainer at 9,713 victories through April 18 and counting, with Asmussen quickly pulling away from the late Dale Baird’s 9,445 after breaking the record last Aug. 7 at Saratoga.
Asmussen holds particular affection for Lone Star Park, beyond being the track’s all-time win leader. He and his wife, Julie, have lived in nearby Arlington for years.
“All three of the boys were born there in Arlington, about 15 minutes from the racetrack,” said Asmussen, who won 17 races at Lone Star’s inaugural meet in 1997 and his first of 14 training titles two years later, “so it’s been a very special place to us. With all the trials of horse racing now, the agricultural tax that Texas has in place that is supplementing their racing is proving to be very effective.”
Indeed, it’s not a coincidence that Asmussen has won Lone Star’s two training titles since the purses have increased, with Broberg taking the crown in 2019 and 2018. Asmussen went 71 for 344 last year after going 50 for 266 in 2020.
“Financial opportunity allows you to run a little more expensive horse,” said Asmussen, who also claimed his 14th Sam Houston trainer’s title earlier this month with 51 wins. “I am blessed with opportunities as far as horses go, and I’m hoping that continues.”
With more money on the table, the competition overall is tougher - and that’s the point, he said.
“That’s what we’re hoping for, to build the product as well as the state-bred program there,” Asmussen said from Churchill Downs, where he is preparing Louisiana Derby winner Epicenter for the Kentucky Derby and unbeaten 2-year-old champion filly Echo Zulu for the Kentucky Oaks. “I think the last couple of Texas sales have been up dramatically, which (means) better horses get to run for more money.”
Broberg won five of the six Lone Star training titles between 2014 and 2019, with Asmussen on top in 2017. He had strong meets last year (54-for-280) and in 2020 (42-for-2020) while second in the standings but couldn’t match Asmussen’s horsepower.
Asked his expectations for the meet, Broberg said: “To finish a distant second to Asmussen in the standings as usual.”
That’s just being realistic, but Broberg said he’s not conceding anything.
“Lone Star Park is home to me,” he said. “I live 15 miles from the racetrack. I always try to make a full-out effort. I’m working as diligently as I can to stack the deck, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to play out in such a manner.”
End Zone Athletics, the partnership headed by Broberg, remains the owner to beat and comes into Lone Star as the 2022 Sam Houston meet leader with 29 victories. End Zone took last year’s Lone Star title with 40 wins, with Asmussen second with 22.
Stewart Elliott — the 2004 Kentucky Derby-winning jockey on Smarty Jones and who won his first Lone Star riding title last year — comes into this meet off the Sam Houston crown, where he edged Ry Eikleberry 62-59 in victories. Eikleberry left Lone Star for Minnesota’s Canterbury Park last year but will stay the entire meet this time, according to his agent, Jose Santos Jr.
David Cabrera, Lone Star’s leading rider in 2014 who is always in the thick of the jockey race, could resume riding by May 12 after being injured in a spill at Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park, Santos reports. Ernesto Valdez-Jimenez and Lane Luzzi are among others who should be prominent in the jockey standings.
Memorial Day features a blockbuster card, with six stakes forming Lone Star Million Day, headed by the $400,000, Grade 3 Steve Sexton Mile and the $300,000 Texas Derby. New to Million Day will be the inaugural $100,000 Speightstown Sprint for 3-year-olds on dirt, a six-furlong stakes named for the winner of the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Lone Star. The meet’s 21 stakes will total more than $2.8 million.
Calhoun said both Silver Dust, Tom Durant’s multiple graded-stakes-winner and near-millionaire, and Mr. Wireless are candidates for the Sexton Mile. Mr. Wireless was second in last year’s Texas Derby at Lone Star before winning the Grade 3 Indiana and West Virginia Derbies.
Promotional highlights include the May 7 Kentucky Derby, May 21 Preakness and June 11 Belmont Stakes simulcasts; May 1 crawfish boil; Dollar Days on May 14 and July 16; Lone Star BARK (featuring dog contests) May 22; 25th anniversary T-shirt giveaway June 4; Extreme Racing Day (camel, zebra and ostrich races) June 25-26; and fireworks July 3-4. Handicapping-contest qualifiers for the National Horseplayer Championship: April 30, May 28, 29 & 30 and July 16.
First post on Thursdays and Fridays is 6:35 p.m. CT and 1:35 p.m. CT on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. Downloadable promotions schedule here, including live music performers. For reservations and to purchase tickets visit lonestarpark.com