Nations: Racing’s future at stake in dispute

The fight is on between Virginia’s lone thoroughbred racing track and the horsemen who’ve supplied the racing stock at the turf track in New Kent.

At stake — nothing less than the direction and future of thoroughbred racing in the state as Colonial Downs seeks to drastically shorten the racing calendar in favor of a high-purse “boutique meet” aimed at significantly reducing operating costs for the track and ostensibly attracting higher-caliber horses to run at the track.

The Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (VHBPA) doesn’t share Colonial Downs owner Jeffrey P. Jacobs’ vision, that much is certain. The VHBPA opposes the notion that fewer race dates will benefit the state’s thoroughbred industry, and cites recent negative experience with agreeing to a shorter meet.

In an open letter to members posted on the organization’s website, the VHBPA stated it “reluctantly” agreed to Colonial Downs’ request last year for a shorter racing window — from 32 racing days over eight weeks to 25 days over five weeks. Although Colonial Downs saved approximately $500,000 in operating costs as a result, the VHBPA deemed the change “a disaster” resulting in decreases in all source wagering handle (23 percent) and track attendance (25 percent). The shortened meet drew fewer horses, with marked decreases in total starts (26 percent), average starts per horse (20 percent) and average starts per Virginia-bred horses (25 percent).

For the past decade before last year’s racing calendar at Colonial Downs, the track ran a summer schedule ranging between eight or nine weeks and 30 to 45 racing days with the meet’s length determined by the total sum available in the horsemen’s purse account. The goal was to keep the average daily purse at about $200,000, with that being the determining factor in the meet’s length.

Jacobs, who has owned the track 17 years, argues that model is unsustainable in Virginia, which unlike many of its neighboring states offers no slots revenue to help subsidize the industry. The VHBPA counters that Jacobs’ boutique meet — a proposed six-day Virginia Derby Festival every September with daily purses averaging more than $500,000 — is simply an attempt to largely eliminate live racing in Virginia and maximize profits on eight year-round off-track betting parlors and online wagering company.

Both sides have dug in their heels, and the resulting squabble has been ugly. With no new state-mandated contract in place since the previous agreement expired on Jan. 29, four of the track’s OTBs have shut down and the others only have wagering on standardbreds. It’s costing Colonial Downs money, lots of it, but so far Jacobs shows no signs of relenting on his push for a shortened meet starting this year.

“We recognize that creating a new direction in Virginia thoroughbred racing without a horseman’s contract and without the ability to send and receive a racing signal is an uphill battle, but is a battle worth fighting,” Jacobs stated in a news release provided by the track. “The end result will be long-term, high-quality racing of which all Virginians will be proud.”

Colonial Downs is moving to cut out the VHBPA altogether by helping establish a new horsemen’s group more in line with its plans for the track. Should Colonial Downs succeed in setting up a rival horsemen’s group — which it can legally do — the track would still need to get the Virginia Racing Commission’s approval for proposed racing dates.

The financial pressure works both ways. Jacobs has said he’s prepared to have no live racing — and no OTB revenue along with it — for this year or “several years” if necessary. The VHBPA must convince its members to stay unified and not join the rival group as more and more racing dates are lost to the ongoing stalemate.

It’s high stakes for both sides, that’s certain. But for now, the real losers in this fight are Virginia’s thoroughbred racing fans. Colonial Downs ranks among the nation’s best turf courses. It’s a shame the nation’s best horses likely won’t be running there anytime soon.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>