Campbell Feature: The Stubborn Texas Question? … Why the Lone Star State’s Racing Commission soldiers on

Amy Cook (right), the Executive Director of the Texas Racing Commission, listens to Chief Veterinarian, Dr. Steve Bond, in the Test Barn at Lone Star Park. Cook has travelled to racetracks around the state in an effort to build stronger relationships.
Amy Cook (right), the Executive Director of the Texas Racing Commission, listens to Chief Veterinarian, Dr. Steve Bond, in the Test Barn at Lone Star Park. Cook has travelled to racetracks around the state in an effort to build stronger relationships.

The purr of the engine was drowned out by AK-47 fire. Nothing sporadic. It was, however a steady downpour. Leaving the maze of Mogadishu for a remote village, one of the Military Police Humvees that was escorting a convoy of food trucks proceeded along a narrow Somali street. As the enfilade fire rained down like a frog-strangler, the customary protocol stated that before the Mark-19 Grenade Launcher at the top of the vehicle could be fired, a piece of foam insulation should be removed from the ammo box in order to ease the weapon’s capability. During the ensuing melee, the gun crew, distracted, forgot to take it out … and as the enemy descended, the foam absorbed the rounds, keeping everyone alive inside by not igniting that pile of grenades. A new safety measure for the U.S. Army was born.

It was 1993 ... and even though the events of October (the subject of Mark Bowden’s book Black Hawk Down) had yet to unravel, the war in “The Mog,” as it was known, was getting hotter. A young lieutenant named Amy Cook could have lost her life that day had it not been for that breach in practice. “We learned a lesson and a better way to do something,” she said firmly, “I don’t think I would be here right now without that breakdown in procedure.” History tells us that young soldiers in a faraway land are not a new story by any means, but we also know that in life-or-death situations, unintended measures can gracefully rise to the surface.

Cook, a Retired Brigadier General who served both on Active Duty and in the National Guard, is now the Executive Director of the Texas Racing Commission (TXRC). She knows all about learning to look for opportunities that present themselves in the unlikeliest of places ... developing new ways of thinking. When she was hired by Judge Robert C. Pate and Dr. Constance McNabb, DVM, to helm the TXRC, she looked at it as another challenge in an already storied career. Even though her background doesn’t include horsemanship or running a racetrack, her leadership capabilities aren’t lacking in the merit department. You might have heard that she has a law degree, but you probably didn’t know that she was once charged with overseeing a detainee prison in Afghanistan, which included over 1000 enemy combatants. The “kids” that guarded the place were also a challenge, but Cook worked tirelessly to keep everyone safe for an entire year. Running the TXRC might not equate to that of overseeing a prison in one of the most war-torn countries in the world, but as she would find out, it was going to be anything but a cinch.

It's important to understand Cook’s history, because it is directly tied to where she sees the TXRC going ... it’s the “Texas Question” … one that appears mired in stubbornness, but that’s a poor and inadequate assumption. To be sure, in a short amount of time, she has made all sorts of adversaries both within and outside the industry with her response to the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (pronounced HI-SA). Her tough talk, plus a strict interpretation of the 1986 Texas Racing Act led to Lone Star Park’s outgoing signal to be severed in early July. Other state commissions (i.e. West Virginia and Maryland) that disagree with HISA's implementation have not followed suit. Leaving many to wonder ... why? With 8 days of racing left in Grand Prairie, Texas much was made (and continues to be) concerning the monetary hit to the handle (legal ADWs like Twin Spires and TVG are missing out on their substantial cut). However, there is another perspective … and there always is … that she has cultivated all kinds of confidence among seemingly disparate groups in the state. She’s led closed door “roundtables” with horsemen and track leaders, listened to jockey’s concerns, visited “live” meets to build bridges, and has overseen a major move to a new building … and that is only the tip of the sword. As she told me, with a spring in her step, as we toured Lone Star Park last Friday, “I think the future of the Texas horse racing industry is bright, and I want it to be a model for everyone moving forward.” That is a pretty bold statement, especially when you consider what she found when she started last fall.

The 'old' Texas Racing Commission Building ... equipped with its new 'X.'
The "old" Texas Racing Commission Building ... equipped with its new "X."

The Texas Question’s Past …

Walking up to the old building in Austin for her interview, Cook noticed that the “X” in the “Texas Racing Commission” sign was missing. She asked the administrative assistant what happened to it. “They said it would cost like $3000 to fix it,” she said. Cook looked at it as a badge of honor. “You can’t have people walking up to the home of Texas racing and seeing that missing letter, it looked terrible,” she told me. Cook realized the management company that owned the building was responsible for fixing it, and within a few weeks it was back up, albeit with tape that looked like a cross. “Divine intervention,” she said with a grin. Once Cook began to settle in, she faced a mountain of work, literally. Paper, stacked to the rafters, and the idea of being “-less” was a faint notion. “We needed to join the 21st century and modernize our paper-driven culture to meet the expectations of a stakeholders,” Cook admitted. And she did … That wasn’t all her new team was facing, either.

Legislative matters were even more of a pressing issue as 2021 wore on. The state government in Austin uses what is called the Sunset Commission to oversee agencies that are falling down on the job. To be specific, it’s a 12-member panel tasked with identifying and eliminating waste, duplication, and inefficiency for more than 130 Texas state agencies … an apt name for any fading office where the sun’s going down. That is about where the TXRC stood during that 87th Legislative Session. The recommendations initially said, "put your house in order," so to speak, but also stated that Texas racing would be overseen by a new entity, the Agricultural Department. Can you imagine what it would look like if a major agency like “AG” was tasked with rules concerning Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and all of the other breeds? Presentations at meetings would be limited to less than a handful of minutes, squeezed in-between the Egg Quality Program and Pesticides. Fortunately, that bloated entity turned down the opportunity, and after the Comptroller’s door was shut in the TXRC face, the Sunset plan finally landed on the doorstep of Licensing and Regulation. Yes, the folks who give plumbers the right to solder copper lines for exorbitant fees would be running Texas racing. For the sake of horsemen and tracks, Senate Bill 704 (Sunset Commission’s Staff Report with Final Results) failed to pass. The Legislature did send through Senate Bill 713 in its place, which allows the TXRC to function on its own until 2027. A reprieve from a certain doomed fate …

While that news was welcome, the Sunset Commission did get some of its non-statutory recommendations added to the 713. They advised on a series of fiascos that they uncovered. Sweeping the decks with new personnel to dealing with a licensing fiasco were major points of contention. The turnover in Commissioners, plus hiring new staff by the winter were all on the docket. Mind you, that’s not a simple chore to assemble new sets of stewards, vets, and a staff necessary to span all of the different breeds that run in the state of Texas. Cook found a bevy of problems that needed attention as she kicked over rock after rock. She explained that there was a huge disconnect between the licensing rules and how they were (or were not) being administered. “It’s pretty simple … you shouldn’t be able to take out a training license before a race without a background check,” she explained, “We needed to strengthen our licensing procedures, and align them with Texas Law, which has never happened.”

The TXRC’s past relationship with horsemen was another area of major concern. For Cook, they became a top priority, moved to the head of the line, because she knew that their “buy-in” would be crucial. She describes them as a group of “wonderful folks, and met with them on January 12 when she hosted what she called a “stakeholder” meeting. “If you could wind the clocks back to ’86, and start from scratch,” she told everyone that attended in-person and on Zoom, “what would this look like?” The Executive Director was on the move, and the results from that brainstorming led her to write a new 5-year strategic plan that would examine all the past rule-making. “It was amazing what a confusing rule-numbering system and uneven application of the rules we had … It’s no wonder there was such little trust when it came to those involved.” Bringing together a number of industries that do not regularly talk to one another is no easy task; then, HISA came calling …

Most critics of Cook and the TXRC stubbornness do not seem to have all of their facts straight, nor do they understand the significance of what has transpired over this last year. This is not just about the TXRC and their state’s right arguments against the power of the federal government. It goes much deeper than that. The Texas Racing Act doesn’t allow the TXRC to take funds from one source and transfer them to pay another entity … even if it is designated as a non-profit. Cook explained this to HISA’s CEO, Lisa Lazarus, when she visited Austin in early June as they discussed everything from “covered persons” to fee structures. In particular, the breed issue was significant for a place like Gillespie, a fair ground that runs a mixed-meet near Fredericksburg, Texas. They received one of HISA’s bills in the mail, and had no idea what to do with it. “I am for a drug-free sport, and many of the Authority’s ideas make a ton of sense,” Cook explained, “however, we have a statutory roadblock, and that only the Texas Legislature can remove.” All this begs the question … where does the TXRC go from here?

The Gillespie County Fair hosts an annual mix-breeds meet during the summer near Fredericksburg, Texas.
The Gillespie County Fair hosts an annual mix-breeds meet during the summer near Fredericksburg, Texas.

The Texas Question’s Future …

Moving forward in the near term, Cook and the TXRC are watching and waiting for an appeal (National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association v. Black) in one of the cases that is being led by a consortium of states that seek to overturn HISA’s power. “We should know something by the end of August, and I am still confident that this will move ahead in our favor and be sent back to Congress,” she told me. That’s Plan A … Addressing a Plan B, she went on to say, “The idea of HISA: the industry coming together to sign on to uniform standards is a sound one, but they have a resourcing problem, and the Federal Trade Commission has not given them the proper time to implement their program.”

Cook expressed deep concerns about the recent power outage with Equibase in Lexington, Kentucky due to a storm that left the data-gatherer in the dark. “How can they not have a backup, especially knowing that their system is directly tied to entries for HISA races?” she said with a measure of skepticism. Like her counterpart Lazarus, she is also inundated with a number of timing issues. She extended the cutoff by which Texas tracks can submit their race dates for next year to the end of August. “That will give us time to conduct a Commission meeting before then, and I am confident we can support our Thoroughbred tracks next year,” Cook said. As for the Texas Legislature, that is an even bigger challenge on January 1, 2023.

Not only is that HISA’s anti-doping and medication rules start date, but Cook and the TXRC will need to be ready to make recommendations concerning the statutes that are on the books … namely, the Texas Racing Act. “Our intention is to roll-up our sleeves, and be ready to go through the process,” she explained. “It’s going to take roughly 8 months (August 2023), but our approach this time, is much different because we are working with our industry partners to define the future of Texas racing, as it relates to our distinct roles.   I firmly believe that the time I have spent building open, frank communication channels, puts Texas in a position of strength as an industry leader and will also result in our commission becoming the most professional in America.” Cook thinks the major problem with HISA is that they are not involving the state racing commissions and major trade associations in developing policy and resourcing solutions. She went on to say, “Communication builds partnerships and create solutions, but without effective communication and the encouragement of professional disagreement … it’s much harder to achieve a common goal.”

Cook is also focused on fulfilling the Sunset Commission’s directives, and she is mindful that they will return in five-years’-time; opening the books and wanting to know if the TXRC has completed its mopping-up campaign. As for HISA, Texas may well have to answer to them in the end, and Cook recognizes this is a possibility. Tracks are nervous about the prospect of next year, and how many dates they will effectively be able to run. All of that is up in the air right now, and decisions will have to be made soon about everything from their purse structures to the stakes schedules. Sam Houston will be first, followed by Lone Star Park … A reduction in dates might be in the cards … or not … stay tuned …

For now, Cook is focused on the needs of the many racing entities that exist in the Lone Star State. Thoroughbreds are important, for sure, but that isn’t the only breed under the TXRC’s jurisdiction. “We are committed to creating a comprehensive safety program that ensures everyone that competes in this state is doing so for the good of our equine athletes,” she said with passion in her voice. There is much to accomplish, and lest anyone forget, she has not even been on-the-job for a year. “My military training includes the development of tactical patience, and my rule is that we always need to sit down and talk about how we move forward with everything,” Cook said. She thinks that turfwriting publications are quick to judge the here-and-now, without considering the past. Recent history proves that the TXRC has faced turmoil, and building ownership isn’t something that can just happen overnight.

Amy Cook knows that she and the TXRC have much more to do. She also understands that they have a massive job trying to protect racing at all levels in a state that received a huge Thoroughbred purse boost in 2019 from the Horse Industry Escrow Account. That trust fund is available to not only Thoroughbreds, but Paints, Arabians, and Quarter Horses. With an uncertain future pending, the breeding season that brought in a significant cash flow at the recent 2-yr-old sale at Lone Star Park, for instance, there are a number of nervous stakeholders that are waiting to see how this situation shakes out. According to some, the stubbornness of the TXRC isn’t exactly helping calm people down. As the Executive Director reminded me, “That’s how fear works though, doesn’t it? … and that’s why I am spending as much time as possible at the tracks, so I can listen to all the diverse Texas perspectives.” She might not have all the answers, but right now it’s a call for unity.

Cook’s job is to improve relationships, while at the same time, parry risks. Certainly, what has happened at Lone Star Park is “news,” but there is a larger story here with broader and more complex implications. Leadership isn’t simple, and this is something she has developed as an instinct after years of service. The Somali Humvee incident reminds her all of the time that there are not always “easy wins” to be had. Soldiering on, like Cook is doing through the thick of it, is sometimes the best course of action, even if it means bucking the mainstream. There is much to be determined when it comes to the “Texas Question.” A crisis has yet to be averted from where we sit right now; hence the proverbial hand-wringing continues. Still, it wasn’t long ago that the Texas Racing Commission, and its license program, was destined to be lumped with plumbers and the like. Lucky for Texas, its horsemen and its tracks, etc., a foam insert saved the day. Maybe it can again … The chance is there.

Texas Racing Commission's Charlie Hallum, Senior Investigator (left) and Mike Fleming, Chief Investigator (right) survey the heat on a late Friday afternoon from the Lone Star Park Winner's Circle in Grand Prairie, Texas.
Texas Racing Commission's Charlie Hallum, Senior Investigator (left) and Mike Fleming, Chief Investigator (right) survey the heat on a late Friday afternoon from the Lone Star Park Winner's Circle in Grand Prairie, Texas.