GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas -- Trainer Bret Calhoun's career is fast-tracking, thanks to a pair of career-changing Breeders' Cup victories last fall.
When Lone Star Park kicks off its 15th spring thoroughbred season Thursday, Calhoun, 46, will return a bona-fide headliner to his home track a couple of miles from where he grew up.
"I still have a hard time believing what happened at the Breeders' Cup," Calhoun said. "Winning one was an unbelievable experience. Then the second one … hard to believe."
Dubai Majesty struck first, taking the $1 million Filly and Mare Sprint on Nov. 5. The following day, Chamberlain Bridge triumphed in the $1 million Turf Sprint.
Those that have followed Calhoun's progress can appreciate just how far he has come from days in Lone Star Park's opening 1997 season when his barn consisted of four horses. Not all of those were healthy.
Calhoun, who's go-to rider will be veteran Cliff Berry, is loading a full barn of 50 this year as he attempts for the first time to defend a Lone Star Park trainer's title. He interrupted Steve Asmussen's string of seven straight titles last spring, a sign, perhaps, that Calhoun is emerging from Asmussen's long shadow, both locally and on the big stage.
"Overall, my stable is little weaker than last year but I think we'll be able to match up well," Calhoun said. "Our approach is the same. We can't run our best ones here because of the low purses. We'll have a few for the stakes program, but most of our best will be at Churchill Downs and in Indiana."
Despite the instant fame that comes with Breeders' Cup victories, Calhoun is hardly an overnight success. His training career, which preceded Lone Star Park's opening by three years, includes 8,298 starters, 1,799 winners and a little more than $40 million in earnings.
A year ago, he was sixth nationally in both wins (233) and earnings ($7,905,716). And home cooking has been good for Calhoun. He's finished in the top three in the Lone Star Park trainers standings for nine consecutive years.
In contrast to Calhoun's success, his hometown racetrack begins its third straight season mired in corporate bankruptcy. The Texas Racing Commission has not yet approved the ownership bid by Global Gaming Solutions, which owns Remington Park in Oklahoma City.
Global Gaming, a subsidiary of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, received bankruptcy court approval to buy Lone Star Park from Magna Entertainment Corp. with a winning bid of $47.8 million in October of 2009.
"It is really a shame what is happening," said Calhoun, who is second with 500 career wins at Lone Star Park. "The track should have already been sold. They have had to let people go. It has been just a downward spiral."
Calhoun said that despite the hard times, the treatment horsemen get at Lone Star is better than anywhere else in the county.
Unlike tracks in neighboring states, the three Texas Class I tracks don't have access to gaming money to inflate purses. Without larger purses, Calhoun said thoroughbred racing in Texas is threatened. So too are those that solely depend on the Texas circuit for their living.
"One of the best moves I made early on was to realize I had to branch out to other places," said Calhoun, whose home base is New Orleans.
Because Calhoun has a core of owners in the Dallas/Fort Worth area that enjoy watching their horses race at Lone Star Park, he plans on being a fixture here.
"If we ever approved slots for race tracks, you'd see it turn 180 degrees in Texas," Calhoun said. "It would go from almost extinct to some of the strongest racing in the country. I'd be back in Texas on a full-time basis."
Word from the top
Lone Star Park president and general manager Drew Shubeck is hopeful that ownership approval could be only weeks away.
"Changes are being made to the application and after it is submitted to the Texas Racing Commission, we could have a vote on the transfer," Shubeck said Wednesday. "Global Gaming is doing everything it needs to do to get this done."
Until there is an ownership transfer, operations at the track go on with a reduced staff and a tight budget.
"It has been very difficult," Shubeck said. "I've got a higher standard for running a business. Morale has suffered with layoffs. We still have great employees. But we need more capital in the building and on the backside."
An injection of capital will help, but more is needed to boost Texas racing in the long term. Tracks in Texas border states have slot machine dollars to pump up purses.
"We've been fighting with our hands tied behind our backs while those in neighboring states are really laughing at us," Shubeck said. "I'm a horseman, and I wouldn't want to be faced with what is going on in Texas racing right now."
With or without an imminent ownership transfer, Shubeck said Lone Star Park patrons this spring can look forward to "exciting Texas racing, a clean facility and some of the best food in Texas."
The spring meet this year consists of 52 dates (down from 60 in 2010) over 13 weeks, concluding on July 10. Daily purses will rise from $150,000 to about $170,000 daily, aided by a reduced stakes schedule.
The basic weekly schedule calls for night racing on Thursday and Friday (first post at 6:35 p.m.) and afternoon racing on Saturday and Sunday (1:35 p.m.)
Key events include Kentucky Derby Day (May 7), Preakness Stakes Day (May 21), Lone Star Millions Day (May 30), Belmont Stakes Day (June 11), and Lone Stars and Stripes Fireworks Celebration (July 3 and 4).
Here's a look at names to know in the 2011 Lone Star Park spring meet:
Steve Asmussen: The Arlington resident is Lone Star Park's all-time leading trainer. He won Eclipse Awards in 2008 and 2009. He's led the nation in wins in six of the past seven years, including last year when he saddled 460.
Cody Autrey: Returns to Lone Star Park after three years in Kentucky and Delaware. The Waxahachie native was fourth in wins with 42 in his last season here in 2007.
Karl Broberg: Fifth locally in the trainer standings in 2010 and eighth nationally a year ago in wins with 197.
Jack Bruner: Fourth in the Lone Star Park trainer standings a year ago, but possessed the highest winning percentage (38 percent) of any trainer that finished in the top 10 in the standings.
Danny Pish: Runner-up to Calhoun at Lone Star Park in 2010 and fourth all-time in wins locally. He's recorded a top-five finish here each spring since 2000.
Cliff Berry: Three-time riding champion at Lone Star Park and the track's all-time leader with 752 wins. Currently leads the season standings at Oaklawn Park and will remain there through the final day of racing on Saturday.
Junior Chacaltana: Runner-up finisher in the 2010 Lone Star Park standings.
Chris Landeros: The 22-year-old, now a Grand Prairie resident, won consecutive riding titles at Lone Star in 2009 (97 wins) and 2010 (101).
Lindey Wade: Co-leading rider along with Quincy Hamilton at the recently concluded Sam Houston Race Park meet with 28 wins. The 20-year-old will be making his debut at Lone Star Park.
Tom Durant: The Granbury resident improved his leading owner run at Lone Star Park to three straight seasons with a meet-record 37 wins in 2010. His horses have accumulated a record 215 wins at Lone Star Park.
Heiligbrodt Racing Stables: The Houston couple, Bill and Corinne Heiligbrodt, are in their fourth decade of thoroughbred racing and are members of the Lone Star Park Hall of Fame. Third in wins at Lone Star in 2010.
Midwest Thoroughbreds: Richard and Karen Papiese, from the Chicago area, began running horses under the stable name in 2009 and quickly bolted to the top nationally in wins in 2010.