They're off: Colonial Downs a disgrace to VA racing
It’s always seemed odd that Virginia, birthplace of Secretariat and home of some of the world’s most beautiful horse country, has never had much in the way of horse racing. In 1978, Virginia was the third-ranked producer of thoroughbreds in the U.S., but it slipped to 11th after a defeat of parimutuel betting by voters.
Today, Virginia embraces horse racing, but not in a good way. When notoriously amoral trainers like Richard Dutrow Jr. look for a new place to ply their trade, Virginia’s willingness to turn a blind eye may put the Commonwealth at the top of their list.
In 1988, after decades of defeat, Virginia voters overwhelmingly approved parimutuel betting in the Commonwealth. The accompanying legislation charged the Virginia Racing Commission with the responsibility of maintaining horse racing in the Commonwealth "of the highest quality and free of any corrupt, incompetent, dishonest, or unprincipled practices, and to maintain in such racing complete honesty and integrity.”
But rather than enhancing the Commonwealth’s reputation, horse racing in Virginia was immediately as corrupt as Rick Dutrow could hope.
In 1994 the Racing Commission, after reviewing and rejecting numerous applications containing financial data, engineering studies, architectural renderings, case studies, and demographics, issued the state's first and only license to build a track to Colonial Downs, whose founding executives had no previous racetrack experience. The Commission also issued an operator's license to Stansley Racing, even though– according to a 1996 Court of Appeals case brought against the Commission by the Virginia Jockey Club– Stansley “did not technically apply for a license” because at the time Stansley Racing did not exist.
Robyn Williams, then chairwoman of the Racing Commission, acknowledges that Colonial Downs received its license largely because its application “clearly stated that the racetrack and its satellite facilities would be under competent, professional management" and proposed a "joint undertaking" with the operator of the Preakness Stakes, the Maryland Jockey Club.
The proposal was a farce, and in spite of horrific mismanagement, unfulfilled statutory obligations, and flagrant non-cooperation, the Racing Commission continues to allow and enable the Downs to enjoy a monopoly as Virginia’s only parimutuel track. And they have both bent and broken the law to do so.
In 1999, the Commission took no action regarding the Downs’ $12 million in contested bills and the lack of a certificate of occupancy. In 2000, the Commission, despite its duty to enforce the 150 race days required by the Racing Act, dubiously (and perhaps illegally) amended the required race days to 72. And Colonial Downs had the gall to sue the Commission to reduce the days to 25.
In the years since, the Commission has dismissed or ignored what Williams has called a “morass of legal and financial disputes” (including allegations of purse misappropriation and unsafe conditions) because, “The grandstand is also very attractive, the food is good, and the atmosphere is friendly.”
Oh, and the money.
A recent study by UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service estimates that the Virginia Horse Industry has an annual economic impact of $1.2 billion, and Colonial Downs is responsible for a large part of it (although it hasn’t attained such a level since, in 1998– its first year of operation– the track posted a parimutuel handle of $139 million). Despite its “repeated challenge of the Commission's every order [and] uncooperative behavior,” Colonial Downs operates 10 betting parlors in Virginia and just this year was allowed to feature parimutuel betting at the Strawberry Hill Races.
Virginia’s horse racing climate makes our state an ideal destination for pariahs like Rick Dutrow. If that’s a problem for you, the Virginia Racing Commission’s office is at 10700 Horsemen's Road, New Kent. In case you were wondering, that’s also Colonial Downs’ address.
Juanita lives on a farm in Charlotte County with her husband, son, and many dogs.