Sam Houston Race Park had been on my radar as a priority track to visit for quite some time.
The track’s repeated Gallery Furniture-sponsored overtures to pit the two hot horses of the moment against one another showed the willingness of the mid-sized track to make a splash on the national scene.
Nobody ever bit on the offer, but you’ve gotta love a track with moxie.
The evening at Sam Houston concluded day one of the festivities surrounding the weekend’s Darley Awards – Arabian racing’s version of the Thoroughbred breed’s Eclipse Awards. Consistent with the theme of the weekend, the evening’s dual feature was a pair of Arabian stakes races.
The first, and most defining feature of Sam Houston is its lighting – from the stadium track lighting that can be seen well before the rest of the property comes into view, to the inside of the plant itself, which was lit like a shopping mall. Of the tracks I have visited that host a significant night racing schedule, Sam Houston may be the best illuminated.
Having left Detroit that morning in the midst of sleet weather, the comfortable Houston temperatures put me in a very good mood. A big smile came across my face as I passed through the turnstile. I was in a strange city at a new track. The sky was dark, the lights were bright and the breeze was warm. Yes, this is what it means to be alive.
Admission was free for me, as I had a free pass with the group of Arabian enthusiasts. Upon further inspection on the track’s website, general admission is $6. Kind of steep. Programs were $2, and were made of good quality white paper.
The Sam Houston plant is a very large structure, with at least two sets of escalators. Nooks and crannies were plentiful, with some even offering specialties like Greyhound racing (In retrospect, I wish I would have picked up a simulcast program just to see what Greyhound past performances look like). Business was good enough on that particular Friday night that most of the alcoves had at least a small population.
The ground floor offered bars for the parched horseplayer, but I found most of the major food stands on the second floor. My group had arrived at the conclusion of the third race, and I had not eaten since that morning in Detroit, so I found the nearest hamburger stand (or in this case, a barbecue stand that offered hamburgers) and scarfed one down. The burger was ok to average, but considering the above circumstances, I am willing to award an incomplete grade.
The second floor is a testament to the track’s friendliness to new fans. The track has decorated the walls above the mutuel windows with a glossary of horse racing terms. Basic betting, racing and horse lingo was laid out like it should be in any program worth its salt. Do 90% of the fans in attendance already know just about everything on that wall? Sure. But for that 10% who are standing in line still deciding for whom they want to vote, that information could prove invaluable.
After our in-between-race meal, my group found its way to the grandstand seating. The crowd was good-sized, which is no small feat in a plant of that magnitude (no doubt aided by the 50 cent draft beer and $1.50 wine on Friday nights).
Looking out over the track brought two things to the immediate forefront. First, the track is really good at drawing advertisers. Banners and billboards of various sponsors – with varying levels of local and national recognition and involvement in racing – could be found on the apron, in the paddock, on the rail, beside the tote board and behind the backstretch. As much of an eyesore as that sounds, it was actually arranged to look rather professional. Second, from where we were seated, the auxiliary chute inside the turf course provided an almost head-on view of the break in races that warranted using it. It was a perspective many tracks do not offer.
As the horses entered the gate for the fourth race, what occurred next will stick with me as long as I care about how a racetrack presents itself. When the “minutes to post” number hit zero, the lights dimmed in the grandstand like a movie theater about to play the previews. The buzz that ran through the crowd when this happened was something that I had never seen for an otherwise run-of-the-mill maiden race. It was almost Pavlovian, and it carried on through to the race. It got loud when the field approached the wire – louder than Hoosier Park on last year’s Indiana Derby day, where most of the crowd came inside to seek refuge from the rain – almost “cover your ears” loud. Again, in a grandstand of that magnitude, this was no small feat.
Perhaps this is the secret to horse racing’s never-ending quest to crack the “new fan” demographic – psychological reactions. Clearly, nobody is going anywhere just because of some dim fluorescent lightbulbs, but those dim bulbs tell people that something is going down and it is time to be excited. All attention is turned to the starting gates. If the decades-long success of the laugh track proves anything, it is that if they are already in the seats, people will get excited if you tell them to get excited. If we, as an industry, can find a way to harness these natural reactions, we might be on to something.
Anyway, I hit my first bet on Texas soil – a 5-1 shot that fell to 5-2 by post time. It would also be the last bet I hit on Texas soil. Fortunately, I like to bring home a ticket from each track as a souvenir, so that is not an entirely bad thing.
After a couple races in the grandstand, I decided to venture out on my own and explore the facility. First stop was the paddock. It was a fairly simple stalls and connected walking ring setup behind the grandstand. Horses entered and left by going around the plant.
When the horses emerged at the front of the grandstand to meet the awaiting ponies, they had to pass by a section of the apron. This provided some entertainment as the night wore on and the 50 cent drafts accumulated. A group of guys had gathered by the path and asked each entry arguably the most important question in handicapping, “You gonna win, number five?”, “You gonna win, number six?”, and so on. Most of the riders carried on with their business without paying much mind to the group on the other side of the fence, but when one rider near the end of the procession was asked the question, he turned to them, flashed a smile and thrust his arm out with a resounding thumbs up. This got a huge reaction from the gathering on the apron. The horse didn’t win.
Out front, the track was elevated a few feet off the rather expansive apron. Separating the masses from the running surface was a dirt path where horses were led from the barn area to the paddock without interfering with the horses unsaddling on the track. It was a novel idea, but there was one drawback. The elevated track, along with the walking path, meant the outside rail was prominently placed in the line of sight. Aside from the general difficulty of photographing a speeding horse at night without the benefit of flash photography, the rail made composing a good on-track photo difficult-to-impossible.
The Arabian stakes races kicked off with the seventh race – the Texas Yellow Rose Stakes. Headlining this heat was multiple stakes winner Sanddpiper, who would take home the Darley Award for top three-year-old female the following evening. Very rarely does a horse strike me with that indefinable “It Factor” on first sight, but Sanddpiper has it. The gray Burning Sand filly is incredibly photogenic – definitely not to the “camera aware” level of a Zenyatta, but still pretty good. Her sloped nose gives Sanddpiper the distinct look of an Arabian that makes her stand out from the crowd. Plus, she wins a lot, which never hurts. If I were given the task of selecting Arabian horses to market to a national audience, I would choose Grilla, based on the exposure from his big win last year at Keeneland Race Course, and Sanddpiper. Sanddpiper kept up her end of the deal with a dominant 8 1/2 length score in the Texas Yellow Rose.
After a Thoroughbred buffer race in between, the field arrived at the paddock for the Texas Six Shooter Stakes. The race was another blowout affair, this time by Darley Award nominee T M Fred Texas, who won by seven lengths.
There were signs throughout the grandstand providing a number to text for information regarding the movement toward slots in Texas. Like Michigan, the state is surrounded by racino-enabled jurisdictions and is suffering because of it. Regardless of where one stands on the issue of slots as a long-term solution to racing’s ailments, it is no stretch of the imagination to say that Sam Houston is one of the most natural fits for adjacent gaming I have seen.
Sam Houston Race Park appears to have grown itself the right way. The fields are as ample as the attendance, the track setup is well-designed and the marketing efforts and fan experience are superb. With an infusion of that sweet, sweet slots money at Sam Houston, there would be no stopping it.
I’m pulling for them. You’ve got to root for a track that works hard.
Behind the jump are photos from the evening at Sam Houston Race Park.