By T. D. Thornton
The Apr. 9 passage of legislation in Virginia to legalize historical race gaming machines is being hailed within the state’s racing community as a major breakthrough to allow for the potential sale and eventual reopening of Colonial Downs, with live racing possibly returning as early as next year.
Colonial, which opened for Thoroughbred racing in 1997, has not hosted a race meet since 2013 after complex tangle of disagreements over race dates, purses, and simulcasting rights soured the partnership between Virginia horsemen and Jacobs Entertainment, Inc., the owner of the state’s only commercial horse track.
In the interim, the non-profit Virginia Equine Alliance (VEA) has kept both Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing alive by arranging for smaller, festival-style races to be held at non-commercial equine venues and at well-attended steeplechase events. Races for Virginia-breds have been relocated to Maryland tracks on an interim basis, and the VEA now operates several off-track-betting locations.
“We’re just starting to talk about it, but we know that there will be live racing in 2019,” Debbie Easter, the president of the VEA, said in a Tuesday phone interview.
“We’ve just been so focused on getting the bill signed and the legislation through, to tell you the truth,” Easter explained. “But as you know, the landscape has changed quite a bit in the mid-Atlantic even just since the time Colonial shut down. So I think we all have to sit down and figure out how racing’s going to look. [The passage of the bill] is a very important component, but we have to figure the best way for it to work. The planning is just now coming along. Hopefully in a few weeks we’ll know a little bit more. It’s all going to depend on how the [historical racing] regulations are written also.”
Revolutionary Racing, a Chicago-based company, has emerged over the past half year as a potential buyer of Colonial, and the company had made it clear in published reports that any deal hinged on the passage of some form of historical race gaming.
Revolutionary Racing is headed by chairman Larry Lucas, an entrepreneur who formerly served as chairman of YouBet.com, and president Prentice Salter, a management services specialist who most recently led the development of a country-wide network of 63 off-track betting facilities in the Dominican Republic.
When Colonial was last scheduled to race in 2014, the Virginia Racing Commission had imposed a 25-date summer season with a purse structure of around $200,000 daily after horsemen and the track’s owners deadlocked on negotiations. But no contract was ever inked, the meet was abandoned, and each side blamed the other.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on Monday that a 25-day season at Colonial was still the working number for race dates, but Easter emphasized that no such details have been negotiated yet.
“There isn’t anything mandated at all in the legislation [about race dates],” Easter said. “I just think that a prior agreement had said up to 25 days the first year, but I don’t think I can give you a good answer as to what it’s going to look like yet.”
Easter added that the return of racing at Colonial doesn’t necessarily mean the smaller Thoroughbred and Standardbred race meets around the state that the VEA advocated for will be going away.
“Personally, I think giving our folks year-round opportunities is a great thing,” Easter said. “That would fit well with all of us working together in the mid-Atlantic like we’ve been trying to do. Personally, I think that’s something that we should look at.”
Colonial’s gem of a turf course was always a big summer draw for horsemen and bettors, and Easter said she has heard that it has held up well despite the disuse.
“From what I understand, they’ve been maintaining it well. Obviously, the new folks that are buying it are going to get after it right away. But from what I’ve heard the current owners have been taking good care of it.”