Commentary: Colonial Downs racing issue in stalemate

By E.C. Hart

The ongoing dispute in the commonwealth over thoroughbred horse racing has not been resolved because, under the current model, it is impossible to fix. Colonial Downs in New Kent County is interested in simulcast revenue and not live racing. Period. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive or misinformed. And that is the owner’s prerogative but that does not benefit the horse industry and he should not be subsidized for it.

Virginia’s secretary of commerce and trade recently preempted the forfeiture of Colonial Downs racing license in order to force a compromise. While good intentioned, this action was another impediment in the resolution of this unworkable scenario. Colonial Downs was willing to forfeit its license rather than going forward with the status quo, but the governor intervened.

The Racing Blue Ribbon Committee was at work developing a new model for thoroughbred racing in Virginia that would benefit all concerned parties, including horsemen, horse players, racetracks, and the commonwealth itself.

Now we are in a stalemate while the governor, through the commerce secretary, has taken the reins away from the Virginia Racing Commission. With each passing day the prospect of racing this year is less and less.

My wife and I used to own and kept up to 50 horses on our farm, but with the decline of racing at Colonial, we have reduced our horse inventory. In the past, we bought mares to produce Virginia breds because of the opportunities at Colonial Downs. We even raced Belmont winner Victory Gallop in two stakes at Colonial the first year of operation. Last year was the first year since we moved to Virginia that we didn’t foal any of our mares in state. We’ve advised clients that Virginia is not a place to foal mares under the current circumstances.

Please keep in mind that every breeder who no longer breeds in Virginia will be sending revenue to other states offering more incentives for their state bred programs. The governor should be interested in the long-term big picture, but in fact, because he is unwilling to settle this, he is responsible for people like us sending money out of state.

We have lost income from boarding and raising horses. I’ve lost veterinary income from taking care of horses and I now spend the majority of my time practicing in other states. We’ve greatly reduced our farm staff. And I might add that while the governor is interested in creating jobs, I feel he must be unaware of the fact that the Virginia horse industry not only creates year-round jobs — as opposed to the many temporary ones created by Colonial — but we hire people who would otherwise find it difficult to get a job.

The trickle-down effect of this conflict hurts everyone from van companies to farriers to local farmers, feed stores and other associated vendors. The state has it backward if it thinks Colonial does more for the state than the local horsemen do for the economy.

With Colonial cutting costs the last few years, the “racing experience” was no longer user friendly. It was difficult to justify bringing guests and practically impossible to encourage newcomers to participate in our great sport. While Colonial claims it wants quality racing through a short boutique meet, that in itself would not be boost the local economy – it would actually hurt Virginia breeders. Out of state trainers would ship in, win the big purses and leave. Few local horsemen have horses who could be competitive on that level. I am all in favor of boutique meets when the time is right but we need to first resolve the current situation.

Unfortunately, the location of the track has been an obstacle from day one. But the horsemen supported the track and did everything they could to make it work.

It is past time to abandon the tired, dysfunctional way of conducting the business of horse racing and let all of us get back to work. In order to do this, everyone needs to be open minded and move forward. The governor should take a stand and then allow the Blue Ribbon committee to do its job.

There is another important effect of the downward spiral of racing in Virginia — land values for horse farms. Additionally, the Virginia horsemen have kept vast amounts of land open and that benefits everyone who enjoys the beauty of the commonwealth’s green space.

I’m hopeful the governor will soon address this matter.

Dr. E.C. Hart is a veterinarian who resides in Millwood.