by Frank Petramalo

By now just about everyone in the mid-Atlantic knows there is a dispute between the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) and Colonial Downs over the length of the 2014 race meet.  For the past ten years we raced in the summer, usually for eight or nine weeks with from thirty to forty-five days of racing. The length of the race meet was determined by a simple formula negotiated by the VHBPA and the track. The total sum in the horsemen’s purse account was divided by $200,000, which we agreed was a reasonable average daily purse amount to attract good horses and keep us competitive with our neighbors. The resultant number became the number of race days.

This year Colonial Downs reneged on our formula. Instead of agreeing to race thirty days/eight weeks, as determined by available purse funds, the track first proposed running twelve days/four weeks and later dropped the number to six days. Not surprisingly there was no agreement on a new horsemen’s contract when the old one between the VHBPA and Colonial expired at the end of 2013.

[pullquote]Colonial’s desire to radically reduce Virginia racing has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with cutting the track’s expenses.[/pullquote]

Under state law, without a new horsemen’s contract Colonial cannot offer wagering on thoroughbred simulcast signals at its eight off track betting shops. That unfortunately alienates customers and creates revenue loss for Colonial and the horsemen’s purse account.

At its March 17th meeting the Virginia Racing Commission proposed a compromise to break the impasse over race days. The VRC suggested a twenty-one day (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday)/seven week period. That’s acceptable to the VHBPA even though it is nine days shorter than we originally wanted. Colonial, however, is balking. Its purported reason for doing so is not credible.

Colonial claims it wants to improve “quality” by reducing racing to six days, and thereby increase purses to attract “better” horses. But its own experience refutes that notion.

Last summer, when the VHBPA reluctantly agreed to reduce to twenty-five days/five weeks from thirty-two days/eight weeks, as an experiment to test Colonial’s hypothesis, the results were disastrous. Even though the average overnight purse increased by 28% all source wagering handle dropped 23% and attendance decreased 25% compared to 2012’s thirty-two day/eight week meet. The shortened meet attracted the fewest number of horses in memory. Total starts per horse dropped 26%; average starts per horse dropped 20%; and, average starts per Virginia-bred horse decreased 25%.

In a bit of irony Colonial President Ian Stewart last week noted on Colonial Downs’ Facebook page that in 2004 the track “put on a quality thoroughbred meet,” which that year was managed by the Maryland Jockey Club. The 2004 meet was thirty-five days/seven weeks with average daily purses slightly above two hundred thousand dollars. The race conditions and the level of horses competing were no different from those in recent years. Makes it tough to figure out why a 2014 twenty-one day/seven week meet, with average daily purses of over two hundred sixty thousand dollars, would not be a “quality” one in Stewart’s terms.

Colonial’s desire to radically reduce Virginia racing has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with cutting the track’s expenses. Last year the track saved nearly five hundred thousand dollars, mostly in payroll and marketing expenses, by reducing from thirty-two to twenty-five days.

Colonial would undoubtedly save even more by racing only six days. It leads one to think the current management’s business plan is to cut expenses, run a few live days to retain its VRC license, and operate Colonial’s eight profitable off track betting shops and its on-line wagering company, EZ Horseplay, twelve months a year.

While no one begrudges Colonial a profit perhaps we should bring back MJC to manage the track. Maybe it can better balance the profit motive with the Virginia Racing Act’s mandate to “promote, sustain, and grow” horse racing in the Commonwealth.

Frank Petramalo is the Executive Director of the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

NOTE: The Racing Biz offered both the HBPA and Colonial Downs the opportunity to submit an op-ed to run today.  Colonial Downs did not do so.