Colonial Downs today abandoned its plan to race in 2015.
“We were hoping to bring racing back on November 30th, but unfortunately we will not be able to do so and are disappointed to announce its cancellation,” the track said in an announcement on its website.
That same announcement also said that Colonial Downs, the thoroughbred racetrack located in New Kent County, southeast of Richmond, is continuing “our work with the Virginia Racing Commission to get high-quality racing back to Colonial Downs for 2016.”
That second claim doesn’t quite seem to square with the track’s other major accomplishment today: it sued the Virginia Racing Commission.
The company filed a Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief against the Virginia Racing Commission (VRC) in the US District Court in Richmond.
In so doing, it is seeking to be allowed to enter into a contract with the horsemen’s group of its choosing, thus allowing it to accept out-of-state wagers, rather than having to negotiation with the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which has been at loggerheads with Colonial Downs for some two years.
Colonial also maintains that Virginia’s 2015 legislation governing racing “diverted” purse and operating funds that rightfully belong to the track.
Colonial claims that legislation passed earlier this year by the Virginia legislature conflicts with the federal Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 and that the latter law would allow the track to sign a contract with a horsemen’s group of its choosing — in this case, the Old Dominion Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ODTHA).
In an article in the Daily Press of Hampton Roads, VA, Frank Petramalo, head of the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA), called the ODTHA “a sham organization.” Petramalo’s group is recognized by the Commission as representing the majority of the state’s horsemen, but when Colonial Downs could not reach an agreement with that group for the 2014 or 2015 racing seasons, Colonial sought to promote the creation of a new group more amenable to its plans.
The state Racing Commission has been reluctant to allow the track to toss the HBPA. Allowing the track to do so would be unusual, perhaps unprecedented in the 40-year history of off-track wagering; it could also significantly undermine the authority of horsemen’s groups nationwide.
The filing seeks clarity on what Colonial called conflicting federal and state laws that Colonial Downs believes to be interfering with the Virginia Racing Commission granting Colonial Downs a limited license to conduct live thoroughbred racing. As a result, the track has been unable to act on its agreement with the Old Dominion Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ODTHA) to bring about “high-quality thoroughbred horse racing” at the track in New Kent County.
Federal law requires that off-track wagers can only be placed on those races where the host racetrack has consented to allow such wagering — and where the track has a written agreement in place with the majority horsemen’s group.
Colonial Downs claims that the new state law, which defines the “recognized majority horsemen’s group” as “the organization recognized by the commission as the representative of the majority of owners and trainers racing at race meetings subject to the commission’s jurisdiction,” conflicts with the federal Interstate Horseracing Act.
The federal law merely defines the majority horsemen’s group as that “which represents the majority of owners and trainers racing there, for the races subject to the interstate off-track wager on any racing day.”
“Colonial Downs has proposed to the VRC a 2016 limited license application which includes a contract with the ODTHA to bring the highest caliber of thoroughbred racing to Virginia,” said Stan Guidroz, Regional Vice President of Jacobs Entertainment (which owns Colonial Downs). “We are simply asking the Virginia Racing Commission to approve our application which would allow us to pursue our efforts with a horsemen’s group that shares our vision to create an economic model that will ultimately contribute to the health of the entire horse industry in Virginia.”
With the abandonment of its 2015 application, Colonial Downs currently has three requests pending before the Commission. One calls for four days of live racing in September 2016, operating under an agreement with the ODTHA. The other two are to reopen off-track wagering facilities in Hampton and Richmond and to provide those facilities with 25-mile exclusivity zones.
“We look forward to bringing the Virginia Derby, Virginia Oaks and the Colonial Turf Cup back to Colonial Downs in 2016, the only venue in Virginia capable of hosting graded stakes races,” Tim Valente, President of ODTHA, added, “Virginia has a long, rich history with thoroughbred racing and we hope to continue this tradition for many years to come.”
Valente’s hope raises interesting questions. The Virginia Equine Alliance, the nonprofit comprised of the HBPA, Virginia Thoroughbred Association, Virginia Harness Horse Association, and Virginia Gold Cup, sponsored those three races — with “Virginia” and “Colonial” replaced by “Commonwealth” in the name — at Laurel Park earlier this fall. The American Graded Stakes Committee, recognizing those as the successors to the similarly-named races run at Colonial Downs, allowed them to retain their prior grading.
Thus, the question: Whose Derby is it?
“The Commissioners’ unwillingness to recognize the Old Dominion Horsemen in 2014 makes the effort to bring about high-quality horseracing in Virginia a practical impossibility,” said Jeff Jacobs, CEO of Jacobs Entertainment, which owns Colonial. “There is no legitimate reason for the Virginia Racing Commission to deny Colonial Downs the ability to contract with the ODTHA. We are confident the court will find in our favor, which will allow us to focus on nationally recognized high-caliber thoroughbred racing in Virginia.”
(This article contains information from a Colonial Downs release.)