Sam Houston Race Park concluded its 20th annual live Thoroughbred meet on March 18. The 33-day racing season was highlighted by a series of high profile stakes races and notable attendance and handle gains.
The revamped stakes schedule in 2013 was anchored by the richest Thoroughbred race in Texas and in Sam Houston Race Park history. The inaugural $400,000 Houston Ladies Classic on Saturday, January 26 featured a dynamic field of fillies and mares. The winner, Joyful Victory, gave a dominating performance that garnered national attention. The 5-year-old daughter of Tapit trained by Larry Jones and owned by Fox Hill Farms Inc, solidified her place as one of the top older horses in the country with a stunning victory in the Grade 1, $300,000 Santa Margarita Stakes at Santa Anita less than two months later. Now racing’s newest millionaire will likely accomplish even more en route to her intended target of the 2013 Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships in November.
The Houston Ladies Classic and three additional stakes were televised nationally on HRTV and locally on Fox Sports Southwest.
Joyful Victory was joined by several other noteworthy champions and graded stakes winners at Sam Houston Race Park. Jones had a memorable night on January 26 as both Joyful Victory and Icon Ike set new track records in their stakes victories. Icon Ike closed powerfully to capture the $75,000 Champion Energy Services Stakes. The talented turf sprinter followed his victory with a win in the Colonel Power Stakes at Fair Grounds and is slated to compete in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. Swift Warrior topped a stellar field in the Grade 3, $200,000 Connally Turf Cup and Departing stamped his ticket to the Grade 2, $1,000,000 Louisiana Derby with his victory in the Texas Heritage Stakes. Sam Houston Race Park also welcomed back trainer Kenneth McPeek, who shipped in the very game Unstoppable U, winner of the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup.
Daily purses were up 5% from 2012 to $170,000 per day, compared to $162,000 in 2012. For the third consecutive year Sam Houston Race Park was able to offer the highest purse structure since opening in 1994. In total, the meet featured 23 stakes races with purses of $1.7 million including four new stakes for Texas-breds.
“This was a successful meet for us with solid fields throughout the season and one of the most competitive stakes programs in the history of Sam Houston Race Park,” said Eric Johnston, vice president of racing. “We attracted nationally prominent horsemen including Steve Asmussen, Larry Jones, John Terranova, Mike Maker, Bret Calhoun, Mark Casse, Eddie Keneally and Al Stall. Each were effusive in their praise of the quality and safety of our main track surface and Connally Turf Course.”
Sam Houston Race Park officials noted increases in both on-track and total handle. Total handle was up 2% with $43,917,000 wagered compared to $43,071,000 last year. Total on-track handle from Houston fans increased 9%. Monday afternoon racing continued to be well-received by racing fans. On both February 11 and March 18, Sam Houston Race Park led the nation in handle for the live cards.
Live attendance was up 10% from 2012 with sizeable crowds for several of the racing festival events. On March 9, Sam Houston Race Park hosted the second annual Camel and Ostrich Races. The highly entertaining evening attracted a crowd of 14,818, topping the record-setting attendance of 12,389 in 2012.
In addition, Sam Houston Race Park named the Susan G. Komen For the Cure® as beneficiary for the Houston Ladies Stakes on January 26 with $1.00 for each paid admission to benefit the charity. Over 7,835 fans enjoyed the entertaining evening of racing and many donned their most creative hats for the “Think Pink” Hat Contest. The end result was a donation of $10,335 for the Houston chapter, but even more importantly, the beginning of a long-term association with one of the most respected charities, both on a national and citywide basis.
“Our goal was to improve the quality of our live racing product and we believe we made great strides, especially with addition of the Houston Ladies Classic,” said Sam Houston Race Park president, Andréa Young. “That stakes will return next year. We really felt it set the tone for the entire meet.”