The Lone Star phenomenon - built for big things
Maybe it’s because of the long, flat stretches of landscape that, when shimmering in the summer heat, have potential for mirage. Or maybe it’s just the capacious grandeur of a land vast as imagination. But whatever the reason, Texas always has inspired dreams and ideas so big and robust they couldn’t sit comfortably anywhere else.
To attempt anything on a small scale here is an insult to Texas heritage. And back in the mid-1990s, when developers and racing executives were planning a new racetrack for the Dallas area, a racetrack that was to be the jewel of Texas’ inchoate racing industry, they invested their plans with the dream of some day hosting the sport’s championship event. Everything was planned and created with the Breeders’ Cup championships in mind, recalled Corey Johnsen, the first general manager of Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie. Everything was built so that it could be stretched or expanded when necessary to Breeders’ Cup proportions.
And on October 30th 2004, in only its eighth season, Lone Star will become the youngest racetrack ever to be host to, as it’s now called, the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. The eight races worth at least $14 million typically attract the most accomplished racehorses in North America, as well as many of the best from Europe. This year the Breeders’ Cup will take its excellence and its pageantry and its enduring significance to a new region, specifically to Grand Prairie, Texas.
But don’t misunderstand. Grand Prairie isn’t a hiccup of a town in a Larry McMurtry novel; it’s a fast-growing city in the geographic centre of a metropolitan area of five million people. To the east, about 12 miles distant, the Dallas skyline is visible from the upper levels of the Lone Star grandstand. A few miles west, near one of the nation’s most famous amusement parks, the Ballpark in Arlington is home to Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers. A little farther west sits Fort Worth, which claims to be the only city that owns a herd of longhorn steers, and who would dispute it? Here the West is said to begin. And about 10 miles north of Lone Star Park, the Dallas Cowboys, who have won more Super Bowls than any team in the history of professional football, pursue yet another while playing at Texas Stadium.
In the sports world Texas is probably best known for football and in the general awareness for cowboys of all sorts. But, again, don’t misunderstand. This country, tamed on horseback, was made for horse racing; both the sport and the region have a prodigious capacity for inspiring dreams. And indeed Texas has a rich, if disjointed, history of racing.
In the mid-1930s, Arlington Downs, located about where The Ballpark in Arlington now stands, was one of the most successful racetracks in America. Crowds of 30,000 filled the grandstand on weekends. Newspapers of the time speak of dignitaries from around the world attending Arlington Downs. In 1937, Ben Jones topped the trainers’ standings. Jones, of course, went on to win six Kentucky Derbies, the first in 1938 with Lawrin, who had raced at Arlington Down the previous season. Racetracks also prospered in Houston and San Antonio.
If politicians hadn’t intervened, Texas quite possibly would have become the horse racing capital of North America. But the state’s racing industry instead became the victim of an acrimonious political dispute. In 1938 it was banned in the state. And so for the next 50 years, Texans simply raced elsewhere.
In 1946, as America and indeed the world recovered from an epidemic hostility, a Texas-bred racehorse named Assault supplied the raw material for hope and myth. He was raw-boned and deformed, and he had the most unlikely provenance. Yet with a sweep of the Triple Crown, the little chestnut known as the "clubfooted comet" became a prominent character in the eternally appealing story of determination's triumph.
And for Texans, he was much more; he was their representative.
"The victory of Assault in the Kentucky Derby," wrote an editorialist of the time, "is but one example, if example is needed, that this great southwestern section of America is on the march and will be heard from in increasing proportions in every phase of American activity, and none more strongly than in the field of the horse."Assault was bred, born and raised on a vast expanse once called the "Wild Horse Desert" but later famous as the King Ranch. When he was a weanling, he stepped on a surveyor's spike. It ran through the frog, of the right
front foot and out the hoof wall. The injury left the foot deformed and the horse crippled.
And so even years later Assault walked with a conspicuous limp and would sometimes stumble and fall when going to the racetrack. But once there, he ran
with surprising grace and efficiency and, most of all, courage. Perhaps that was the source of his charisma. Overcoming his misfortune and his lameness to become
the seventh horse ever to win the Triple Crown, he became a popular hero and for many an embodiment of courageous spirit.
After the Triple Crown, Assault was "the main topic" of conversation throughout Texas, according to a contemporary newspaper account. So popular was he that his
admirers developed "some fantastic schemes" to satisfy "the public's clamor" and allow "the rank and file of Texans who were not able to witness the 3-year-old
in action . . . to catch a glimpse" of him.
People petitioned Gov. Coke Stevenson to issue a proclamation honouring Assault and making his jockey, New York native Warren Mehrtens, an honorary Texan.
Sentiment grew for returning horse racing to the state. There was even a plan to raise $100,000 for "a special race, without betting, of course," intended to attract Assault.
"Everybody knew about Assault," remembered Monte Moncrief, who at the time was a Texas A&M student but who later became the King Ranch veterinarian. "We were highly proud. Just as Dallas is proud of the Cowboys, Texas was proud of Assault. . . . When Assault won the Triple Crown, it was like Joe Louis beating Max Schmeling."
Yes, although no horses raced in Texas for more than 50 years – not with legal betting anyway – the state still can boast of a rich racing history that’s fraught with achievement. But most Texans, such as Hall of Fame jockeys Bill Shoemaker and Jerry Bailey and Hall of Fame trainer Max Hirsch, had to leave the state to pursue their racing careers.
Even without racing at home, Texans remained prominent in the sport, developing successful breeding farms in Kentucky and campaigning stakes winners from New York to California and from Ascot to Chantilly. Throughout the 1980s, racetracks in neighbouring states, such as Louisiana Downs and Oaklawn Park, prospered in part because of the many Texans that regularly travelled three-to-six hours to attend the races.
Then in 1987, the state’s politicians, who for 50 years had kept the sport underfoot, finally turned the issue over to the voters, who in a statewide referendum overwhelmingly welcomed horse racing back to Texas.
Problems persisted, however. The Texas Racing Commission, which regulates the sport in the state, could have produced a new translation of the Bible in less time than it took to write the state’s rules of racing. An onerous pari-mutuel tax virtually precluded the substantial investment necessary to develop any large racetrack, and so the first racetracks to open in Texas during this modern period were insignificant.
Once the tax was lowered, the Commission dragged its tentative feet in awarding licenses. The Dallas area was a proven market for the sport, having supplied about 50 percent of the attendance at nearby Louisiana Downs for years. A Dallas racetrack was destined to stand at the centre of the state’s racing industry. But the Commission put off awarding a license in the Dallas area, deciding first to license racetracks in Houston and then San Antonio.
Finally, the Commission awarded the coveted Dallas area license to Lone Star Park over three other applicants. The citizens of Grand Prairie had voted for a half-cent sales tax to help finance the $100 million Lone Star project. Nevertheless, as the new racetracks in Houston and San Antonio struggled, Lone Star developers met with considerable scepticism from banks asked to provide additional financing. But in 1995, famed real estate developer Trammell Crown and his son Harlan injected $10 million into the project. The state’s horsemen pledged another $5 million. And the dirt soon began flying at the Lone Star site.
On a Thursday afternoon in April of 1997, 60 years after the closing of Arlington Downs, a crowd of 21,754 filled Lone Star’s Spanish baroque grandstand and welcomed major league racing back to North Texas. A couple days later, Bob Baffert, the leading trainer in the nation, saddled the winners of two stakes races, Anet in the Lone Star Derby and Isitingood in the Texas Mile. Skip Away, who finished third in the inaugural Texas Mile, would go on to become Horse of the Year.
For its first season, Lone Star averaged nearly 10,000 in daily attendance. The average daily handle of $2.39 million was a record for an inaugural season by any North American racetrack built since 1970. No little house on the prairie, it immediately became the success story many had anticipated for decades; it became, in other words, the racetrack Texans had envisioned when they voted in 1987 to bring racing back to the state.
Since then, most, if not all, of the nation’s leading jockeys have competed at Lone Star, many of them in the annual National Thoroughbred Racing Association All-Star Jockey Championship. And the nation’s leading trainers – such as Bobby Frankel, Bill Mott, Richard Mandella, Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen have raced their horses in Grand Prairie. In fact, Asmussen, who currently sits atop the North American standings in both victories and earnings, is Lone Star’s all-time leading trainer. And many of North America’s leading horses have raced around the Lone Star oval, including Congaree, Real Quiet, Answer Lively, Hal’s Hope, Sir Bear, Bluesthestandard and Hallowed Dreams.
Since the track opened, more than 8.8 million people have attended Lone Star and have wagered more than $1.7 billion.
In 2002, Magna Entertainment, which also operates Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park, purchased Lone Star. Since then, in anticipation of the Breeders’ Cup, three new barns have been built, including a 96-stall quarantine barn. When nearly $8 million in capital improvements are completed, the winner’s circle and paddock areas will be expanded and the seating augmented to accommodate a crowd of 50,000. A new banquet room is also under construction.
Lone Star is accepting ticket applications for the Breeders’ Cup at lonestarpark.com. The deadline for applying is June 4.
What you need to know
Lone Star’s regular season runs from April to mid-July. But to accommodate the Breeders’ Cup, the track will have a special championship season, starting Oct. 1 and continuing through Oct. 31.
During October, the North Texas weather is like Goldilocks’ favourite bowl of porridge, neither too hot nor too cold. The average high temperature for the month is 78, with an average low of 56. The average high on Oct. 30, by the way, is 72, and the average low 51. The record high for October is 90, recorded back in 1951. In other words, if you endured the weather in Southern California this past year, you’ll love Texas in October.
Lone Star will offer 14 stakes races, in addition to the Breeders’ Cup events, during its October season. The opening weekend will feature stakes races that could serve as Breeders’ Cup preps – the Silver Spur for 2-year-old fillies, the Middleground for 2-year-old colts and geldings, and the Alysheba for 3-year-old sprinters. The $250,000 Lone Star Derby and the $150,000 Stonerside Stakes for 3-year-old fillies will be run Oct. 29.
The Dallas area is one of the most dynamic sports markets in America, with professional basketball, soccer, hockey, football and baseball teams. Moreover, a series of festive events, including concerts, are planned leading up to the Breeders’ Cup.
Around the ovals
Lone Star has a one-mile dirt track, with chutes for 1 ¼-mile and seven-furlong races. Inside the track, as is typical with American racetracks, is a seven-furlong turf course, with a chute angling across the infield.
When the track first opened and its turf was immature, horses with early speed enjoyed considerable success. Because of that, the turf course developed a reputation for favouring speed. And that reputation, although confuted by hard evidence, lingers. Over the last four years, half of the 480 turf races around two turns have been won by horses that rallied – that is, by horses that were more than four lengths behind the early leader. And only 16 percent of the turf races have been won by horses on or near the early lead.
The main track, on the other hand, seems to offer an advantage to tactical speed. The race is not always to the swift, as the prophet pointed out, but at Lone Star a modicum of early speed generally proves valuable. Horses that have sufficient speed to gain an early advantage or to race within a half-length of the early lead win more than a third of the sprints. But the most effective style is stalking – that is, racing close to the early leaders, within four lengths, and then pouncing in the stretch. Late-running types win about 18 percent of the races.
In two-turn races on the main track, the victories spread out somewhat more evenly among the three running styles. But stalkers again tend to have an advantage, winning nearly 40 percent of the races. Horses that rally from more than four lengths back win about 26 percent of the two-turn races.
Few places in America have packaged the joy and excitement of racing more effectively. Lone Star quite simply is a fun place to attend the races. And on Oct. 30, it’ll become the host racetrack for the sport’s championship event. Lone Star and indeed all of Texas racing could be very much like the diminutive colt who 58 years ago outran early difficulties to attain enduring glory.