Horses emerge from the fog on opening night 2013 at Colonial Downs. Photo by Nick Hahn.

Horses emerge from the fog on opening night 2013 at Colonial Downs. Photo by Nick Hahn.

by Nick Hahn

Tomorrow the Virginia Racing Commission (VRC) is scheduled to meet in an effort to end the lengthy standoff between Colonial Downs and the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (VHBPA), recognized by the VRC to represent Virginia horsemen, over the format — indeed, the very existence — of the 2014 Thoroughbred race meet.

That meet — which in past years has typically begun on Belmont Stakes day (June 7 this year) — is in  jeopardy because the horsemen and the track have been unable to fashion an agreement regarding how many days of live racing, over how many weeks, will take place in New Kent, VA.

This hasn’t always been the case.  In fact, over the years the VHBPA and Colonial Downs have partnered, for example, to expand the off-track betting network and develop EZ Horseplay; to do that, the VHBPA rebated to Colonial a portion of the horsemen’s share of Thoroughbred handle.  

In 2013, the VHBPA reluctantly agreed to a five week race meet with 25 days of live racing in order to boost average daily purses back over the $200,000 threshold — considered the minimum necessary to attract horses — with lackluster results.

Here’s how we went from a lackluster 2013 meet to the very real possibility of no 2014 Thoroughbred meet at all:

Nick Hahn has been covering Virginia racing since before there was a racetrack. His “Off to the Races” radio show is a must-listen, and his “Nick’s Picks” tip sheet is a shortcut to wagering profits at Colonial Downs.

JULY 13, 2013 – War Dancer wins the Virginia Derby on the concluding day of Colonial’s season, which, though originally scheduled for 25 days was reduced to 24 by inclement weather. For the moment, it’s the last day of live racing in Virginia.

OCTOBER 2013 through DECEMBER 2013 – Representatives of Colonial Downs and the VHBPA discuss the schedule of the 2014 approximately two or three times, according to sources.

DECEMBER 5, 2013 – The Virginia Racing Commission receives two proposals from Colonial Downs and the VHBPA that differ substantially. The VHPBA requests 32 days of live racing over eight weeks. The proposal by Colonial Downs is for a 12-day meet over four weeks.

DECEMBER 11, 2013 – The Virginia Racing Commission awards Colonial Downs 25 days of racing over five weeks — a status quo approach. The VRC also encourages both parties to return to the bargaining table to come up with an agreed upon schedule for presentation to the VRC. After the meeting, officials with Colonial Downs state that they would have accepted the 25-day meet.  The VHBPA opposes the 25-day approach largely because they say five weeks isn’t long enough to ensure Thoroughbreds get multiple starts.

DECEMBER 31, 2013 – The contract between Colonial Downs and the VHBPA expires. That contract governs the interaction of the horsemen and the track, and it allows Colonial Downs to accept wagers on Thoroughbred races run out-of-state at its off-track wagering facilities.  The contract will be extended three times in the month of January.

JANUARY 21, 2014 – A scheduled Virginia Racing Commission meeting is postponed due to inclement weather.

[boxify cols_use =”3″ cols =”6″ position =”right” box_spacing =”5″ padding =”3″ background_color =”gray” background_opacity =”10″ border_width =”1″ border_color =”blue” border_style =”solid” height =”800″ ]In a Nutshell

  • 2013 — Following a 2013 meet featuring 24 days of live racing over five weeks, the sides negotiate the meet format for 2014 with no real progress.  Eventually, the Virginia Racing Commission imposes a status quo meet identical to that run in 2013.
  • January-February 2014 — The sides continue to negotiate towards a solution that offers more weeks than the four the track prefers but fewer days than the 32 the horsemen would like; the contract between the horsemen and the track expires; the horsemen withdraw their consent permitting Colonial Downs to accept wagers on Thoroughbred races at their off-track wagering facilities; several close.
  • March 2014 — The sides dig in; a mediation fails completely, and the sides find themselves farther apart than previously.  Colonial floats the idea of a very brief, high-end meet accompanied by additional days scattered over four months, which the horsemen reject.
  • April 2014 — Colonial Downs says that it is ending negotiations with the VHBPA and seeking instead to work with a like-minded group of horsemen to recreate Colonial as a high-end boutique meet.  The Racing Commission reportedly proposes a six-week, 24-day meet, which the horsemen accept and the track rejects.
  • May 2014 — Colonial Downs offers a $2 million interest-free loan to an alternative horsemen’s group, should one arise.  With time running out, the sides think they are close but cannot come to a resolution. A presumably last-ditch meeting is slated for May 30. [/boxify]

JANUARY 29, 2014 – The horsemen’s contract with Colonial Downs, extended several times during January, is allowed to expire.  That means that Colonial’s OTBs can no longer accept wagers on Thoroughbred racing.  The VHBPA believes that an agreement — for 28 days of racing over seven weeks — is at hand.  But the sides cannot resolve who covers $300,000 in additional expenses that Colonial seeks from the horsemen to cover overhead expenses beyond the five-week meet, which thwarts the deal.

JANUARY 29, 2014 – A rescheduled Virginia Racing Commission meeting is postponed again due to inclement weather.

FEBRUARY 4, 2014 – With no contract between the VHBPA and Colonial Downs in place, Thoroughbred wagering ceases in the off-track wagering (OTB) facilities. Some OTBs are closed entirely and several remain partially open with wagering on harness racing only. Many mutuel tellers and other staff are laid off or have work schedules significantly altered.

FEBRUARY 14, 2014 – During a conference call led by the Virginia Racing Commission, the VHPBA offers $150,000 to cover expenses of expanding the meet from five to seven weeks. The deal eventually falls apart.

FEBRUARY 20, 2014 – The New York Racing Association (NYRA), which operates Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga, announces the creation of the $1.25 million Belmont Derby for three year-olds on the turf, slated for July 5 — just a week prior to the Virginia Derby’s traditional calendar spot on the second Saturday of July.

MARCH 12, 2014 – An attempt at mediation is “not successful at all,” according to Virginia Racing Commission director Bernie Hettel. Both sides meet with the mediator together and independently. The session is over before noon.  Colonial withdraws the 7-week, 28 day format and instead offers just six days of live racing over two weekends.

MARCH 17, 2014– With as much as six inches of snow covering much of Virginia, the Virginia Racing Commission meeting fails to obtain a quorum. Two members are present and another two listen in over speakerphone. In the meeting, Commissioner D.G. Van Clief proposes as a compromise a seven week, 21-day format that the VHBPA accepts but Colonial rejects.

MARCH 28, 2014 – Colonial Downs offers three proposals for racing.  All include a six-day, high-end meet run over two weekends and centered on the Virginia Derby; the schedule would be filled out by intermittent racing dates such as Father’s Day weekend and Independence Day weekend.   One similar proposal subsequently offered by Colonial includes 25 days of racing spread over four months, with as few as two days in one of those months.  The VHBPA rejects these overtures.

APRIL 5, 2014 – Colonial Downs hosts the “Dogwood Races” steeplechase event.

APRIL 8, 2014 – In the morning Colonial Downs releases its response to VHPBA chairman David Ross.  The letter says that “it is time for Colonial Downs to move on” and dismisses the 28-day and 21-day meet proposals as unacceptable. Through the release, Colonial acknowledges that previous proposals rejected by the VHBPA offered overlapping dates with the harness meet in a 23 day and 27 day format.

In the afternoon Colonial issues a release stating that they will work the “other horsemen” to create a “high-caliber boutique thoroughbred race meet” in future years. The release further states that Colonial realizes that “there may be no thoroughbred racing in Virginia for several years.”

APRIL 11, 2014 – The Secretariat Turf Course is burned, an annual procedure to prepare the course for summer racing. The dirt course is left covered stone dust as it has been after the 2013 harness meet.

Mid-APRIL 2014 – The VRC proposes as a compromise a six week/24 day meet. The VHBPA accepts this format, which Colonial rejects, sources say.

MAY 7, 2014 – The VRC reaffirms its December 11, 2013 award of 25 days of live racing over five summer weeks and directs the parties to return with a contract implementing the award.

MAY 13, 2014 – Via press release, Colonial Downs agrees to a 25-day meet over five weeks on the condition that the VHBPA reimburse the track operator for lost revenues that could be as high as $1.5 million. The release further announces that the VHBPA rejected a 25-day meet that would be run at Colonial Downs and other Virginia racing venues such as steeplechase meets over a multi-month period from July through the fall. The release reaffirms Colonial’s desire to work with other horsemen in lieu of the VHBPA, adding the enticement of a $2 million interest-free loan to such a group.  For its part, the VHBPA states that it is willing to follow the Commission’s original mandate and run a five-week meet with 25 days of live racing.

MAY 19, 2014 – After weekend discussion that may have pulled the parties closer together, no agreement is attained. The Commission sets a special meeting for Thursday, May 22.

MAY 21, 2014 – As the two sides failed to reach an agreement, the Virginia Racing Commission cancels its special meeting originally scheduled for May 22. The two parties talk but make no progress.  The postponed meeting is rescheduled for May 30.

MAY 30, 2014 – And now?

SEPTEMBER 17, 2014 – Opening Day for the Harness Meet at Colonial Downs.

(Note: This timeline is not exhaustive; other meetings and events not listed here may have taken place.  Some dates are approximate.)