Houston’s $600,000 Epsom Downs racing plant was the first new horseracing venue in the state to open after the state of Texas approved pari-mutuel betting in 1933. Oil magnate William T. Waggoner (owner of Arlington Downs, which had previously opened in 1929) 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. Thus this legalization effort paved the way for horseracing operations in Houston and other locations. Epsom Downs in Houston offered its first races on Thanksgiving Day, November 30, 1933. It was followed by Galveston Downs (January 1, 1934), San Antonio’s Alamo Downs (April 23, 1934), and the State Fair of Texas (April 28, 1934).
The Epsom Downs facility, named after the famous English track, was owned and operated by the Texas Breeders and Racing Association. Houston businessman E. J. Hussion was the first association president. The managing director of the plant was Lou Smith. At that time Smith owned tracks in Montreal and New Hampshire.
The grandstand was located east of Jenson Drive, centered on Trout Street, and facing what is now the IH 69/US 59 southbound feeder road. The oval track extended east past Dodson Street and extended north to Gager Street and south to Tidwell Drive. Construction included 1,500,000 board-feet of lumber, and the grandstands required 800,000 bricks, 600 tons of structural steel, and 900 cubic yards of concrete. The grandstand would 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 could accommodate 5,000 people, and a parking area could hold 10,000 cars. The track also contained stalls to quarter up to 800 thoroughbreds, and that number increased to 1,000 by the 1934 season. For its second race meet, March 9–31, 1934, the race plant employed an estimated 1,500 people. The track provided for races of five and one-half furlongs and one mile.
From the beginning Epsom Downs was lucrative. An estimated 30,000 spectators, with an official attendance of 27,665 paid, were drawn to see 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. Gift of Roses 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. The Houston Chronicle called it “an artistic triumph and a financial success.”
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 venue’s 1934 winter season opening included a performance by the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and a “Charity Day” in March 1934 raised $13,000 for local orphans and handicapped children.
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.