HOUSTON’S $600,000 EPSOM DOWNS RACING PLANT WAS THE FIRST NEW HORSE RACING VENUE IN THE STATE TO OPEN AFTER TEXAS APPROVED PARI-MUTUEL BETTING IN 1933. Oil magnate William T. Waggoner (owner of Arlington Downs near Dallas) led a successful campaign to bring legalized pari-mutuel betting back to Texas. Texas Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson supported the legalization plan and saw it as a way to combat the state’s budgetary issues during the Great Depression. This legalization effort paved the way for horse racing operations in Houston and other locations.
Drawing on the charm of the “Sport of Kings” and the internationally popular English Derby at Epsom Downs near London, Houston’s Epsom Downs was a popular entertainment location for many, including college students, as well as being a social occasion worthy of travel from across the state. The Epsom Downs facility was owned and operated by the Texas Breeders and Racing Association. Houston businessman E. J. Hussion served as first association president, with Lou Smith as managing director.
The grandstand was located east of Jensen Drive, centered on Trout Street, and facing what is now the IH 69/US 59 southbound feeder road. The oval track, which provided for races of five and one-half furlongs and one mile, extended east past Dodson Street, north to Gager Street and south to Tidwell Drive. The grandstand could seat 7,800 and enclose an additional 10,000 in the lawn and floor area. The facility had a sewage system “large enough to accommodate a small city of 100,000,” a clubhouse that accommodated 5,000 people and a parking area that held 10,000 cars.
From the beginning Epsom Downs was lucrative. An estimated 30,000 spectators attended the track’s inaugural event. The first feature race was won by Gift of Roses, paying its owner J. E. Ebelhardt of Covington, Kentucky, $2,170. The horse and jockey H. Schutte were met by Governor Miriam Ferguson in the winner’s circle after their victory. The first day of racing brought in bets totaling $113,727, prompting the Houston Chronicle to call it “an artistic triumph and a financial success.”
Governor Ferguson’s successor, James Allred, sought throughout his term to repeal the state’s pari-mutuel betting law and succeeded in his mission on May 22, 1937. During this period there was also an ongoing campaign by a number of religious organizations to curb pari-mutuel gambling and off-track “bookie” betting. On June 17, 1937, the Texas Racing Commission denied racing permits for Epsom Downs, Arlington Downs and Fair Park past September 1 of that year. Racing at Epsom Downs ended on March 27, 1937.
Reprinted from the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Houston, a project in cooperation with the Houston History Alliance. For more information, visit www.HoustonHistoryAlliance.org.