Va. Racing Commission talks new committees, racing venue

by | Jun 7, 2017 | Breaking, Business, Top Stories, Virginia, Virginia Business

Since the closure of Colonial Downs, Virginia has been without a conventional flat racing venue. Photo by Nick Hahn.

by Nick Hahn

Virginia racing officials announced several new directives intended to bring back live racing to the Old Dominion at the Racing Commission held June 6 in Richmond.

Shortly after hearing about the potential of Powhatan Plantation to serve as a racing venue, Virginia Racing Commission chairman Daniel Van Clief appointed two commissioners to chair committees with simple mission statements.

Van Clief is modeling these efforts after previous “Blue Ribbon” panels the Commission has convened. Commissioner Charles Steiger of Virginia Tech was appointed to chair one of the committees, focused on strategic planning, that would help define what future Virginia racing would look like, where it would fit in other mid-Atlantic and national schedules, and what the “deliverables” would be as to how breeding and/or other Virginia equine industries eventually work into live racing.

“This committee will be looking at the fundamentals in rebuilding the thoroughbred industry in Virginia,” explained Van Clief during the meeting about a Strategic Planning Committee.

Another committee, this one chaired by commissioner J Sargeant Reynolds, would “specifically look at how to grow handle on and off track, all-encompassing,” according to Van Clief.  Reynolds was not in attendance at the meeting but had previously agreed to lead the committee.

The question of where racing will occur in Virginia remains a challenging one. Since the closure of Colonial Downs following the 2013 season, racing interests have conducted a handful of flat races at Great Meadow, near The Plains, each year on the spring and fall Gold Cup cards. An initiative last year to launch racing at Morven Park, just outside Leesburg in northern Virginia, ultimately could not reach a workable solution.

Now Virginia interests have turned towards Powhatan Plantation, which is located in King George County, 15 minutes east of Fredericksburg.

Virginia Equine Alliance director Jeb Hannum provided initial details on the targeted site located on a thousand-acre piece of property owned by the Guest family, a prominent clan of Virginia racing’s past.  The parcel, currently used largely for polo events, includes a landing on the Rappahannock River, a lengthy airstrip once used to fly thoroughbreds to Europe, and a six-furlong dirt course.

Issues like terrain and water appear to initially be of less concern than they were at Morven Park.  The VEA is currently performing research on the estate for topography, possible layouts and costs.

The Guest family has owned a sizable piece of Virginia’s racing heritage. Among the horses they bred or owned:

  • Larkspur, the 1962 Epsom Derby winner;
  • Sir Ivor, who won the 2,000 Guineas, Epsom Derby and DC International;
  • L’Escargot, a steeplechase champion in Europe in the early seventies; and
  • Tom Rolfe, who won the 1965 Preakness.

The paddock at Colonial Downs was named after Raymond “Andy” Guest.  Both Andy and his father, also Raymond, served terms in Virginia’s General Assembly. The latter also served as US Ambassador to Ireland from 1965-1968.

Among the other items approved in the rapidly moving morning meeting was a schedule of Virginia-bred races to be held in Maryland and West Virginia.  While the stakes racing would be similar to those held at Laurel Park, yet adding 4 more stakes, Charles Town would be added to host “sprinkle” or “everyday” claiming, maiden and allowance races.

The Commonwealth Derby, Commonwealth Oaks and Commonwealth Turf Cup races previously known as the Virginia Derby, the Virginia Oaks and Colonial Turf Cup respectively, were tabled pending a meeting to be held with Maryland racing officials later this week.

“The Virginia-bred races are not controversial.  The open stakes might require a little more time to get thoughts together,” said Van Clief during the meeting.

The Virginia Equine Alliance was also granted a conditional approval to open an OTB at Buckets sports bar in Chesapeake, VA where a conditional use permit, a zoning function, is pending approval by the municipality.  Currently the Virginia Equine Alliance operates two OTBs in Richmond, VA.