Horse racing track coming to Rio Grande Valley

Updated: March 23, 2007, 6:24 PM ET
Associated Press

McALLEN, Texas -- The Rio Grande Valley region that's home to more than half of the state's quarter horses is getting its own horse racing track.

State and local officials detailed plans Friday for the $23 million facility, which be part of an entertainment complex that will offer simulcast racing, restaurants, a nightclub and boarding for 1,500 horses.

"It looked like it'd be a good entertainment venue to bring horse racing to South Texas," said Greg LaMantia, president of the Valle de los Tesoros corporation that's being formed to build the track. Organizers say the track will provide hundreds of jobs and lure tourists from Texas and Mexico.

The Texas Racing Commission approved the Class 2 track this week after years of planning and lobbying. The commission approved the track for 18 days of live racing, but state Rep. Kino Flores, D-Mission, said the number of days was still under discussion.

The track, which is not yet named, will specialize in quarter horse racing, meaning mostly sprints between 220 and 440 yards.

"We have a passion for 13 seconds," Flores said. "We're not too concerned about horses that take two minutes to go around a track. ... Here in South Texas, we have mastered the art of the dash."

Texas is the top state in terms of quarter horse population, with 482,394 quarter horses, according to the American Quarter Horse Association. Flores said more than half of the quarter horses that race at parks around the state are from the Valley.

"A lot of the race tracks north of us, they really depend on the Rio Grande Valley," Mission horse trainer Alex Villarreal said. "If it wasn't for the Valley, horse racing up in San Antonio, Austin, et cetera wouldn't be successful. There's a lot of people from the Valley that go and race their horses up north."

Victor Villarreal, a McAllen physician who owns race horses, said the track would keep some of the money spent traveling around the state at home.

"Now that we have racing here all that money's going to stay in the Valley," he said.

Friday's announcement comes as tracks around the state report dwindling attendance, and some track owners say they can't compete with tracks in Louisiana and Oklahoma.

"There's bigger purses," said Roman Garza, who runs a small race park between Mission and McAllen. "A maiden race here in Texas will be $4,600 to $6,000. In Louisiana the same race, same horse, it's going to be $20,000 to $22,000."

Tracks in other states also have casino-style video lottery terminals, which many Texas tracks, including the new one in the Rio Grande Valley, are pushing for.

But efforts to legalize video lottery terminals in Texas have been defeated by gambling opponents who say they are a step on the road to full-fledged casino gambling and problems such as addiction, crime, and bankruptcy.

Even if lottery terminals aren't legalized, officials with the McAllen track say proximity to Mexico will give them a boost places elsewhere won't have.

Wealthy and middle class Mexican nationals already fill McAllen's restaurants, malls and shopping centers and are credited with helping fill recently built entertainment arenas in neighboring Hidalgo as well as Laredo.

"Mexico is also a market that, let's say, San Antonio, Houston may not be able to have because of geography," McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez said. "Our market is not only the local people but people that come from Mexico to shop and do business here."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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