GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas -- The feel of a fresh start that comes with every Lone Star Park spring meet is enhanced this year.
The 53-date, 13-week spring meeting that commences Thursday will be the track's first opening day for thoroughbreds since Global Gaming Solutions LLC took ownership of the license to operate Lone Star Park.
What it means for North Texas horse racing fans is Lone Star Park, which turns 16 this year and has been on a downward financial spiral since hosting the 2004 Breeders' Cup, finally is in the hands of a company with deep pockets and a willingness to free up funds for improvements.
"As far as the new ownership, our hopes are high," said jockey Cliff Berry, who won his fourth Lone Star riding title last year and will return this spring to defend. "It's the same group that has done so much at Remington Park, where I ride in Oklahoma in the fall. They've made a big difference there and hopefully it will be the same at Lone Star."
Berry, who is in the chase for leading rider at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., said he hopes new ownership can reverse the decline in purses and quality of horses he has witnessed at Lone Star.
GGS, with gaming revenue and tribal assets exceeding $1 billion, was established to leverage the Chickasaw Nation's regional entertainment, gaming and operating expertise into the commercial markets in the United States and internationally. Its price tag for Lone Star Park: $47.85 million.
When the keys were handed over last May, it wasn't long before Global Gaming dollars went to work. A five-month, $3 million renovation of Lone Star's race book, formerly the Post Time Pavilion and now called Bar & Book, was completed in December. More improvements are planned.
"I've been here since it all began 16 years ago," said G.W. Hail, Lone Star Park's vice president and assistant general manager, "and I've seen us go into a season with this type of momentum only once, in 2004 when we hosted the Breeders' Cup.
"The improvements to the Bar & Book have already made a difference. In the first quarter, we were up 4 percent in handle and 17 percent in attendance. Now, we need to carry that momentum over to live racing."
For the last three opening days of the spring meet, Lone Star Park has been a little bit like the puppy in the animal shelter eagerly awaiting someone to give it a home.
Just a month before the 2009 startup, Lone Star Park parent company Magna Entertainment Corp. filed for bankruptcy. Magna deemed Lone Star Park as one of the properties it intended to sell.
"I feel good that Global Gaming has the money that can allow Lone Star to survive until we have legislative change as far as slots," said Grand Prairie native Bret Calhoun, the leading trainer in the past two Lone Star spring meets. "But the current goal is to break even, so we've lost some stakes races and are facing another drop in purses. I agree that dropping stakes races to keep the daily purse up is the way to go. But we're down to about $140,000 a day. It won't make financial sense to keep coming if they drop much lower than that."
The recession hit the horse racing industry hard all over the country but, in 2011, Lone Star saw some encouraging signs with a 10 percent increase in daily attendance (7,621) and a 4 percent increase in on-site daily handle, to $302,187.
Music is a key element in Lone Star's strategy to broaden its audience. Nine concerts dot the meet calendar, beginning opening weekend with the Randy Rogers Band on Friday and Gary Allan on Saturday.
Lone Star has traded in its old slogan, "The horses are ready. Are you?" for "Racing that rocks you."
Said Hail: "Global Gaming's commitment is very real and we're going to put on the very best meet we can."
Lone Star Park will follow its longstanding schedule of night racing on Thursday and Friday (6:35 p.m. first post) and day racing on Saturday and Sunday (1:35 p.m. first post).
Key events include Kentucky Derby Day (May 5), Preakness Stakes Day (May 19), WinStar Win a Million Day (May 28), Belmont Stakes Day (June 9) and Lone Stars and Stripes Fireworks Celebration (July 3 and 4.)
Here's a look at names to know in the 2012 Lone Star Park spring meet:
Steve Asmussen: The Arlington, Texas, resident is Lone Star Park's all-time leading trainer. He won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer in 2008 and 2009, and he's three wins shy of becoming the first trainer to win 1,000 races at Lone Star Park.
Karl Broberg: Coming off his second straight trainer's title in Houston, he will have a full barn at Lone Star. He is currently sixth in the nation in wins. Last year he was runner-up to Calhoun for the Lone Star trainer's title with 36 wins.
Jack Bruner: The Dallas resident is the primary trainer for Tom Durant, Lone Star Park's leading owner the past four years.
Bret Calhoun: The Grand Prairie native won his second straight Lone Star trainer's title in 2011 with 50 wins. He is 15th nationally with 2012 earnings over $1.6 million.
Danny Pish: The Yoakum, Texas, native turned to training after trying his hand at rodeo. He was runner-up to Calhoun in the Lone Star Park 2010 trainer's standings and has been a consistent top-five finisher locally for over a decade.
Cliff Berry: The track's all-time leader in wins is coming off his fourth riding title here in 2011. He's in contention for leading rider at Oaklawn Park and will remain there through the final day of racing on Saturday.
Junior Chacaltana: Runner-up in the 2010 Lone Star Park standings.
Chris Landeros: The 23-year-old was second to Berry last year with 61 wins. He won consecutive riding titles at Lone Star in 2009 (97 wins) and 2010 (101).
Geraldo Mora: Coming on fast in only his second full year. He finished runner-up in the Sam Houston standings with 31 wins.
Glen Murphy: Tall for a jockey at 5-foot-8, the veteran from El Paso, Texas, is coming off an impressive meet at Sam Houston that saw him take the riding title and finish in the money in 57 percent of his races. He was the leading rider at Lone Star in 2000.
Larry Taylor: Has over 1,400 wins and $15 million in earnings in a career that spans 26 years.
Steve Asmussen: Won the owner's title at the recently completed Sam Houston meeting and has access to a world-class trainer.
Tom Durant: The Granbury, Texas, resident and automobile dealership mogul in 2011 improved his leading owner run at Lone Star Park to four straight seasons and eight overall.
Jose Luis Espinoza: Finished second in wins in the recent Sam Houston meet.
Clarence Scharbauer Jr.: Since 2000, horses owned by the Midland, Texas, philanthropist have won at a 28 percent clip.