With effort to build track at Morven Park over, Virginia racing interests regroup

by | Mar 16, 2017 | Breaking, Business, Top Stories, Virginia, Virginia Business | 4 comments

Morven Park was the home of former Virginia Governor Westmoreland Davis. Photo by Nick Hahn.

Morven Park was the home of former Virginia Governor Westmoreland Davis. Photo by Nick Hahn.

by Frank Vespe

The bid to build a Thoroughbred track at Morven Park, near Leesburg, VA, is done. Now the question is, what is the future of live Thoroughbred racing in Virginia?

That was the upshot of an interview with Virginia Thoroughbred Association executive director — and Virginia Equine Alliance president — Debbie Easter Saturday morning on the weekly Off to the Races on The Racing Biz Radio Network radio show, which airs on ESPN 950 in Richmond, VA, and via streaming.

“It’s just unfortunate,” Easter said. “Everybody was working really hard to make it happen.”

The Virginia Equine Alliance had identified Morven Park, the onetime home of former state Governor Westmoreland Davis, as its preferred location for a flat track back in 2015. The group represents the state’s Thoroughbred breeders and horsemen, as well as the Virginia Gold Cup Association, for steeplechasers, and the Virginia Harness Horse Association.

But now, nearly two years later, the organization has abandoned its efforts to transform the facility.

Morven Park has “a plan for a major horse center there. We were hoping we could take the steeplechase course and turn it into a racecourse,” said Easter. “When we first went in, we thought maybe we could just flatten it a little bit and build a course there cheaply.”

But, she said, that turned out not to be the case.

“What we realized through some of our flat races at the Gold Cup is that in order to run these races on the flat like you do at a regular track, you really have to have a special piece of property and it really has to lend itself to flat racing,” she explained. “The expense of it to actually turn that track into a legitimate flat track… was just beginning to get bogged down. We just thought it was best to let them go on.”

Go on — but without flat racing.

In the immediate term, Virginia racing fans and industry participants won’t notice any difference. The Equine Alliance is moving forward with re-growing the state’s off-track wagering network. Two outlets in the Richmond area currently are open.

On the racing front, the organization is again planning to have Virginia-bred/Virginia-sired races in Maryland on a couple of occasions, though details remain to be worked out. Last year, there were two separate such days, one at Pimlico in the spring and Commonwealth Day, at Laurel Park in September. There also will be a handful of flat races in conjunction with the Gold Cup races at Great Meadow; the Virginia Gold Cup takes place May 6 this year.

And harness racing will take place once again at Shenandoah Downs, with 10 days of live racing in the fall scheduled.

It’s in the longer term that questions arise.

Easter said that the state’s Thoroughbred interests have entered a phase of reassessment.

“The [Virginia Racing] Commission has given us the mission to say, ‘Hey, now that Morven Park hasn’t worked, let’s really sit back and see what it is we can do to really help the industry and let’s get some goals and think this out a bit,” she said. “We’re a little bit in that process right now.”

That process figures to entail not just a search for a new venue but also a full-scale effort to ascertain what Virginia racing interests can plausibly accomplish, and how that can fit into the existing racing landscape.

Easter said that while horsemen would certainly like to have the opportunity to run at a facility like Colonial Downs, that may no longer be a realistic hope in Virginia, given the expense of creating a track with dirt and turf courses and a grandstand with the requisite amenities.

“While there’s some revenue from wagering that’s contributing to purses, is contributing to the Equine Alliance that you have to think of as taking Colonial’s place, we don’t generate the kind of revenue you need to build a Colonial Downs-type place,” she said. “Those are $40 and $50 million facilities, and we just don’t have that type of money.”

But if a Colonial-type facility is out of the question, and Morven Park is out of the question, then what?

“Unfortunately, in Virginia, we just don’t have a someplace else right now,” Easter said. “Hopefully, we’re going to get there someday.”

She said that the Alliance is currently looking at a couple of different potential sites, but that “they’re just not perfect at this point.”

Perhaps complicating matters, Maryland’s recent handle growth has spurred the Stronach Group, which owns the Maryland Jockey Club, to add live racing days in the last couple of years. This year, the MJC is conducting essentially a year-round schedule. While Easter was quick to note that Virginia’s Thoroughbred interests have a “great relationship” with the Stronach Group, Maryland’s expansion seemingly would make it harder for Virginia to find a spot on the calendar.

All in all, the coming months figure to pose serious challenges as Virginia tries to determine where it fits in the shifting landscape of the Thoroughbred industry.

“We just have to figure out where our niche is and where we can be successful,” Easter said. “Just doing the same old thing that everybody else has always done maybe doesn’t look like it’s working these days in the current Thoroughbred climate. I just think we need to really think about it, make sure as we move forward we’re doing what’s best for Virginia.”