by Nick Hahn

Mediation sounds like a relaxed, conciliatory process that leads toward the resolution of differences.  It just doesn’t sound like that’s what happened this morning in a meeting held at the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond.

In the ongoing dispute over the number and format of racing days at this summer’s meet at Colonial Downs, it appears both sides took a step farther apart.

“It proved not to be successful at all,” Bernie Hettel, executive secretary of the Virginia Racing Commission, said of the mediation process.  “There’s a huge difference between the two sides.”

It appears that Colonial Downs came into the meeting with a proposal to offer 6 days of racing with $500,000 in average daily purses, which surprised representatives of the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA), negotiating on behalf of horsemen.  That offer represented a backtrack from Colonial’s original proposal of a 12-day meet, and a step away from the eight-week, 32-day meet with average daily purses in the $200,000 range.

At its December meeting, the Commission — faced with the two widely varying proposals — had approved a five-week, 25-day meet identical to that run in 2013.  In subsequent negotiations, a seven-week meet proposal has also been discussed.

Both sides had provided briefing materials at a pre-mediation conference last week.  Today, after about an hour of sometimes heated discussion, the two sides broke into separate rooms as mediator Dennis Dohnal, a retired federal magistrate judge, attempted to work between the groups “to encourage new thought and compromise,” according to Hettel.  When that failed, Dohnal ended the session.

After the meeting, Colonial Downs’ President and CFO Ian Stewart didn’t offer any comments, citing a non-disclosure agreement.  Virginia HBPA executive director Frank Petramalo was not immediately available for comment, if he is allowed to provide any, on Wednesday afternoon.

Hettel , who has assembled the two sides in 14 different meetings either in-person or via teleconference, said he understands both sides of the dispute, as the track operator seeks to generate profit and the horsemen look for more opportunities to run in Virginia.

Anonymous sources suggest that Colonial Downs may ask Virginia’s Racing Commission to designate a group other than the HBPA — either a steeplechase association or a newly formed group — to represent horsemen in Virginia on future contractual matters.

Virginia horsemen have issued a call to arms to attend the upcoming Virginia Racing Commission meeting next Monday morning, March 17th to be held at the horsemen’s building located across from the grandstand at Colonial Downs.