Exclusive: No Lone Star, Texas Racing Commission believes in partnership

J.N. Campbell talks with Amy F. Cook, Executive Director of the Texas Racing Commission, clarifying her organization's position on a number of key points ... related to HISA, Lisa Lazarus, and a way forward.
J.N. Campbell talks with Amy F. Cook, Executive Director of the Texas Racing Commission, clarifying her organization's position on a number of key points ... related to HISA, Lisa Lazarus, and a way forward.

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There isn't a line in the sand, nor a high stakes game of Texas hold 'em with an impending flop ...

All Amy Cook is defending is the notion that the Texas Racing Commission (TXRC) should be the best it can be. That is the message she wanted to send last Friday in the form of a letter to CEO Lisa Lazarus of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA), which was first reported by Horseracing.net/us on Sunday. "My goal is, and has always been, a partnership push," said the executive director of the TXRC. According to her, she is not "threatening to shut down" Thoroughbred racing in Texas, when HISA takes effect on July 1.

When I spoke to her by phone on Friday morning, Cook told me that what she is interested in doing is using her vast leadership skills to effect. She reminded me that she was a federal employee for over 30 years, serving in the National Guard, enroute to becoming a brigadier general. In other words, she understands the inner workings of bureaucracy and the politics of process. Being lectured on matters, like how federal grants work, isn't necessary. Listening to a range of folks, from horsemen to horseplayers, veterinarians to racetrack safety experts, is what she is open to.

A bit of state history for context, as we wind the clocks back to 2020. The Sunset Advisory Commission, which is a 12-member legislative commission tasked with identifying and eliminating waste, duplication, and inefficiency for more than 130 Texas state agencies, issued a major report. They recommended a set of non-statutory alterations for the TXRC. These included a number of safety-related changes that needed to occur around racetracks within the Lone Star State. The Legislature passed Senate Bill 713 in 2021, with the intent that the TXRC should continue its mission until a reappraisal in 2027—6 more years. Sweeping the decks, a new "team" of commissioners and staff was named or hired.

Cook took over the executive director position last November, with Judge Robert C. Pate named as chairman of the TXRC. Without a formal background in racing, Cook busied herself with the task of "understanding" the state of racing. It wasn't easy, and still isn't ... "In our first meeting when I was introduced, I made a bold statement ... that Texas would have the best racing commission in the nation, and I still pursue that with dogged determination," she said. 

Walking into that realm of uncertainty, Cook and her staff have tried to game plan for all the possible scenarios that HISA might bring. Sure, the state of Texas is involved in a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the law. However, Cook says that, "There is a difference between litigation and policy, and I am not closed off to talking to Lisa (Lazarus) ... on the contrary, I have invited dialogue from the beginning." A trail of letters between the two seem to indicate a war of words, but that isn't the case according to the executive director. "Lisa and I have exchanged a series of messages, all in good faith, and I realize that she has had a tough task ahead of her," Cook admitted. She certainly understands what her counterpart is going through ... having to start a job midstream.

The retired general realized the challenges facing Lazarus once she was named as CEO back in the early spring. Looking to her own responsibilities, Cook prepared herself to answer the question: What if HISA falls apart? "As a leader, I have to be ready for all sorts of eventualities, and I answer to our chairman, Judge Pate, and to Governor Abbott, they are still my bosses," she said frankly. Her research through discussions with a host of entities yielded the conclusion that HISA could provide a model for rewriting the Texas Racing Act, which is something that needs to be updated in this new climate of racing. She went to work on a document that would layout concerns, and look for alternatives. That piece was posted on the TXRC website on March 4 in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, the organization that approves or disapproves of HISA's laws. 

Cook gave me a number of examples when dialogue has already led to opportunities for growth. She told me that when it came to an issue like hair testing in the state, "Forming partnerships is the best means to get things done when you have a disparate group of interests and perspectives.” Using Facebook Live, she said that they effectively solicited opinions, which made the process much smoother when it came time to rule-making. “Open discussions always yield better results, especially considering that Texas has a variety of breeds that race." She is not just thinking about Thoroughbreds because the scope is much wider.

Moving forward, there is much to be done, as June is just around the corner. Cook told me the appeal that Texas is involved in against HISA's authority will probably not be decided or even heard before the July 1 implementation date. In the meantime, her team has a number of agenda items to keep them busy. The TXRC will meet on June 8 for its regular meeting, but the day before, she will testify before the Texas House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures. Chaired by State Representative Senfronia Thompson, she will be joining a panel concerning licensing and wagering; specifically discussing the history and status of pari-mutuel racing in the state, as well as the TXRC’s role related to the operation of illegal "brush tracks."

Yesterday, the TXRC's General Counsel, Virginia Fields, issued a letter to one of HISA’s attorneys, John Roach, clarifying that "Texas law will continue to control horse race wagering in Texas, if any." The open invitation to meet was once again extended to Lazarus, and now Roach, if they want to pay a visit. How will it all turn out? That remains to be seen. Much can happen between now, and July 1, as Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie is in the middle of its Thoroughbred Meet. Cook is committed to the people that support and love Texas racing, as she has fielded loads of calls from concerned horseman, and industry supporters, that racing in the state is doomed. She has reassured them that it is not. "I have said all along that there is a better way to work, and I am hoping that will lead to a new set of partnerships, because the future is extremely bright," Cook said with hope in her voice. State duties are not precluded by federal ones ... and vice versa ... that is the message from Amy Cook. No lone star here …

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