by Nick Hahn

At its December 11th meeting, the Virginia Racing Commission imposed race dates for the 2014 summer meet at Colonial Downs after the track operator and Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (VHBPA) failed to reach an agreement on scheduling the meet. The Commission, defaulting to last summer’s racing calendar, officially awarded 25 days of racing over five weeks.

That decision to some extent split the difference between the two sides’ proposals.

Colonial Downs submitted a proposal offering 12 days of racing over four weeks, what it called a “boutique Thoroughbred meet.”  That meet would have half of last year’s 25 days, with the average daily overnight purse more than doubling to more than $31,000, according to a prepared statement submitted by Colonial Downs President and Chief Financial Officer Ian Stewart.

The VHBPA, representing Virginia horsemen, had requested 32 days of racing over eight weeks.  But the organization’s counsel, Frank Petramalo, wasn’t shy about offering a compromise to 24 days over the same time span.

What is clear is that, to some extent, the battleground is not the traditional racing sticking point — the number of days — but instead the number of weeks.  The horsemen, especially the smaller outfits, prefer having the gates open over the longer length of time to produce more starts.

Frustrated with the impasse, Commissioner J. Sargeant Reynolds, Jr. moved to approve 5 days a week over 5 weeks, the same format Colonial ran in 2013.  “As far as racing dates go for this year, I have studied both proposals thoroughly and clearly the two proposals are worlds apart,” Reynolds read from a prepared statement.

Other Commissioners echoed Reynolds’ dissatisfaction with the status quo, as well as his hopes that a recently formed Blue Ribbon panel chaired by Commissioner D.G. Van Clief may divert such disagreements in future years.  The commission unanimously approved Reynolds’ motion on days, though some said that they would have preferred a more harmonious solution.

But as Van Clief put it, “The conversation here didn’t yield compromise.”

The next commission meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, January 21st.  In the interim, the sides could decide to continue negotiating in search of an amicable resolution, resign themselves to conducting the 2014 meet as agreed to by the Commission, or continue to escalate the battle.

“If the two parties can get together on a new concept, I’m sure the VRC would listen,” nudged Reynolds.

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The commission ruling is not conclusive; rather, it only set the format for the meet leaving the precise dates to be determined. It appears Colonial will begin moving forward with preparations, as Stewart said that he anticipates a similar meet with an early June opening, perhaps on Belmont Stakes day as was the calendar last summer, and running until mid-July.

“Everyone didn’t get what they wanted,” stated Stewart after the meeting.  Asked about the possibility of the sides hammering out an 11th hour alteration to the format, he replied, “I don’t want to rule that out, but I don’t anticipate it either. I’m not sure there is a better idea out there.”

Both constituencies were well represented in the meeting, as breeders and trainers traded volleys with track employees in attendance during the public comment period on the motion.  The dialogue would have made for a good horse race itself as both groups took turns looking to “out-nod” each other in favor of their partisan proposals.

Colonial Downs president Ian Stewart restated a common axiom that “an unsustainable financial model can’t go on indefinitely” prior to a video presentation of a wide range of Colonial employees supporting management’s proposal.

“I think it is important that [the employees’] voice be heard,” said Stewart, “for the sustainable financial model that Colonial Downs seeks is the opportunity for a stable employment environment for them.”

If the Commission’s decision remains in place, Petramalo and the horsemen will end up with an extra day, but not the extra week they coveted.  That may prove pivotal in filling Colonial’s backstretch.

As an example, Florida based trainer Kathleen O’Connell, a regular at Colonial meet’s in recent years, was absent on the backstretch last summer. Shipping horses in for the Commonwealth Turf Festival on closing day last summer, O’Connell stated that adding an additional week to the term in a four-day, six week season would have allowed in many situations for at least one more start for many in her stable, justifying her annual migration north.

Notes from the Commission

In other matters, the Commission awarded the management of the Virginia Breeder’s Fund to the Virginia Thoroughbred Association for one year. The VTA has managed the fund since the onset of pari-mutuel wagering in Virginia. Equisport Solutions, headed by former VTA Executive Director Glenn Petty, had vied for the management contract.

The Commission also awarded two days of pari-mutuel racing to the Virginia Gold Cup which will operate one-day steeplechase meets in 2014 on May 3rd (Virginia Gold Cup) and October 25th (International Gold Cup).