Two horse race betting initiatives on Nov. 2 ballot will determine the future of Presidio racetrack

PRESIDIO COUNTY —  Early voting is underway for the November 2 special election in which voters will decide on a number of amendments to the state constitution as well as two local initiatives that could lead to the development of a horse racetrack in Presidio County.

The two referendums unique to Presidio County voters are whether or not to legalize pari mutuel and simulcast betting within the county. “Pari mutuel wagering,” as it will be written on the ballot, refers to a type of betting in which bets are placed in a pool, and “simulcast wagering” allows for people to place bets virtually or without being physically present.

If passed, the initiatives would legalize two types of betting on horse racing within a Texas Racing Commission licensed facility. The ballot initiatives were prompted by a group looking to greenlight construction of a horse racetrack in Presidio County.

The site for the racetrack, a 20-acre plot off of Highway 67, south of the Presidio airport, has already been secured by the hopeful racetrack-runner Jose Valdez, with the intent to expand the property. Other pari mutuel tracks in Texas are much larger, like Lonestar Park track in Grand Prairie which measures 315 acres, and require a hefty amount of maintenance.

The proposed racetrack, currently going by the name “Presidio Desert Downs,” is the brainchild of Presidio native Valdez who has a family background in horse racing. While Valdez now primarily resides in Dallas, he and his family still own land in Presidio County.

The idea to start a horse racetrack was born out of a desire to breathe some life back into the town, Valdez said. “I hate to say it but every time we go down there, it becomes sadder, to be honest with you. I love Presidio, I love the area. We’re losing a lot of people there. We had a decline in the county numbers. And so it’s just a shame,” said Valdez. We’ve always talked about going back and doing something for the community.”

Valdez serves as managing director of Wisdom Advisers, a health and safety consultancy, and brought together a handful of other partners to assist with the racetrack effort, some of which are fellow Presidio natives looking to add something new to the town. In addition to creating jobs and increasing visitation to the area, Valdez seeks to fill what he believes is a need in the horse racing market in Texas.

Due to the climate in Presidio, the proposed season for the races would fall between November and February, careful not to overlap with pre-existing circuits in other parts of the state. The idea is to help keep horses active in what would traditionally be their dormant period.

If voters approve the betting measures this November, the proposal will advance to the Texas Racing Commission for approval, a multi-step process which is likely to take around a year. Over the past 10 years, the commission has only received one application for a new racetrack, out of Jefferson County three years ago, which is still ongoing. There are currently four active horse racetracks in Texas and three that hold licenses but are not conducting live races.

The active tracks are located near Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. The locations create a convenient circuit for traveling horses and trainers, which would have a longer trek out to Presidio. The closest regulated racetracks to West Texas are Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino, Ruidoso Downs, and Zia Park Casino Hotel & Racetrack, all in New Mexico.

Nationally and statewide, the popularity of horse racing has been on the decline for many years. Possible reasons could be increased awareness of animal welfare or the industry’s inability to reach new audiences. Maintaining horses is also a costly endeavor. In the past 20 years, the number of races in Texas has continued to decline from 2,014 in 2001 to 761 in 2019 and reaching a 20-year low of 668 in 2020, according to statistics from The Jockey Club.

“I think that racing just isn’t an industry anymore, as far as getting the public out,” said Mary Baxter, a retired exercise rider who has lived in Marfa since 1995.

Baxter said after the legislature enacted the Texas Racing Act in 1986, which created the Texas Racing Commission and permitted pari mutuel wagering, thus legitimizing the racetracks, it seemed like Texas had missed its opportunity to capitalize on the popularity of horse racing.

“All the training tracks that opened up when we got pari mutuel, they’re all kaput, they’re gone. I mean, I don’t mean to sound so negative, but I witnessed it all. Because we had wanted pari mutuel for so long to be able to do a better job of racing. And then when it finally came, it just was kind of a big disappointment in a lot of ways,” said Baxter.

Before the Texas Racing Act was passed, all tracks were “bush tracks” or unregulated tracks, which are now considered illegal. Baxter said after pari mutuel was passed, it increased the cost of hosting races due to tighter regulations and requirements.

“Years ago when it was bush tracks, it wasn’t so complicated, because you didn’t have to have veterinarians and all the support. Now you have to pay track vets and tellers at the windows. It’s kind of hard to imagine that happening in the Presidio, but I’ve been wrong before,” said Baxter.

Valdez is hoping Presidio Desert Downs would cut back on the amount of bush track racing in the area. He said he hopes to partner with Presidio’s sister city Ojinaga to host U.S. versus Mexico international races and work with federal agencies to obtain visitor permits.

“That’s one of the positive things about this, we think it’ll tame down the bush track racing. We don’t know that for a fact, of course. But that’s one of the reactions that we’re getting from the people in the area,” said Valdez.

Valdez estimates once the facility is fully operational, the racetrack could employ anywhere from 80 to 120 individuals, but at the start while they are scaling up it may be closer to 20 to 30. While the horse racing will be seasonal and focus on quarter horse and thoroughbred racing, there is talk of the possibility of keeping the facility open year round and utilizing it for a different purpose. While similar sites in New Mexico and other neighboring states offer casinos in addition to racetracks, that would be illegal under current law in Texas.

Valdez says if the track is realized, they intend to partner with local organizations such as Sul Ross University’s Veterinary Science program to bring students to the track and Big Bend Conservation Alliance to ensure the track’s lighting doesn’t interfere with preserving the area’s dark skies. Valdez said he has received positive feedback about the potential track.

“So far, what we’ve heard is, we have no opposition. But, we also know that may be a false sense. We’ve been calling folks, we’ve been posting on Facebook,” said Valdez.

Because the proposed site of the racetrack falls outside of Presidio city limits, taxes collected from new construction would benefit the county, the hospital district and the local school district, said Presidio Commissioner Buddy Knight. Racetracks do not act as a revenue generator for the state, but more so affect local economies, said Robert Elrod, public information officer with the Texas Racing Commission.

“It has a pretty large impact on where the tracks are and on the whole state as far as the horse industry is concerned,” said Elrod. “And there’s a whole industry that horse racing helps support that’s pretty much statewide. That’s not going to show up in any sort of state tax, or I don’t think anywhere, but it is a part of the economy.”

“In Texas we’re surrounded by states that have horse racing, but at their tracks, at all of them surrounding the state, they also have other kinds of gambling, whether it’s slot machines or table games. They have been able to offer bigger purses, because they use some of the money from the other gambling. Horsemen are going to go wherever the biggest purses are. So over a period of years more and more were going across the border,” said Elrod.

In an effort to offer more competitive “purses,” or prizes, compared to neighboring states, Texas passed an act of the Legislature in 2019 called the Horse Industry Escrow Account, which helps boost the purses via a percentage of racetrack wagers and sales of horse-related items in Texas. Average purses have gone up slightly every year until the average shot up from $17,701 in 2019 to $26,391 in 2020. Elrod said the purse increase has led to people bringing their horses back to race in Texas, but due to COVID-19, more time is needed to measure the impact of the higher winnings.

Presidio County voters can participate in early voting from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays through October 29 ahead of the special election taking place November 2. Voting will take place at The Marfa Visitor Center/USO Building, 302 South Highland Avenue, and The Presidio County Annex Building, 300 O’Reilly Street, for north and south county residents, respectively. On November 2, voters can visit either polling place to cast their vote anytime from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.