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.


As the Executive Director of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association, I've had a front row seat for Virginia's horse racing history and suffice to say Ms. Giles' account is far from accurant. The problem is where to start? Ok, where she did with now-banned-for-life Rick Dutrow. Virginia was the first state to ban steroids and our track record (pun intended) when it comes to "clean" racing is unmatched. Dutrow will find no quarter in the Commonwealth and suggesting he might is blatanly dishonest.
The process of awarding the license to Stansley and the Maryland Jockey Club, while unpopular with many primarily due to geographic concerns, was legal. It withstood several legal challenges from the VA Jockey Club. Yes, Colonial Downs had a spell where they didn't pay their bills, but the Virginia Attorney General's office deemed it outside the Racing Commissions jurisdiction.
The racing act was amended to allow fewer than 150 days. Had we raced those 150 days, the purses would have been so low the quality of racing would have made Charles Town look like the Kentucky that what Virginia wants?
Finally, Colonial Downs opened in 1997, not 1998 as the author claims. It did not handle $139 million in wagers in 1998 as she states, but $120.7 million and, in spite of the assertion that those levels have only declined, total wagering in the Colonial Downs system peaked in 2007 at $167.7 million.
Admittedly, I'm not all that familiar with The Hook, but I do know the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry in Virginia, and as I sit here looking at my journalism degree from that popular school over in the valley, I have to wonder why this publication doesn't have a fact checker and how someone armed with so much misinformation gets published?
I'd be delighted if The Hook would be willing to publish the truth about horse racing in Virginia...Colonial Downs hasn't always been easy to work with, but many of the big problems aren't of their making. Ms. Giles paints with a broad and inaccurate brush…

Sounds like Mrs. Giles is a little off with her facts and figures.

In addition, connecting Colonial Downs and Rick Dutrow is making my head spin. What's the point?

Mr. Dutrow has started exactly TWO horses at Colonial Downs in the past five years.

Dear Mrs. Giles I must confess after reading your article three times I am still scratching my head and unclear as to it’s purpose and meaning. And for that matter your agenda behind writing it. I can’t seem to connect the dots between New York's bad boy of horse racing Rick Dutrow and a horse racing meet at Colonial Downs. How are events that occurred in 1988 and 1994 relevant today to one of the cleanest run horse racing meets in the US? The article at it's best is unclear and misleading. Your misdirected anger at the Thoroughbred breeders and owners of this state who only want the best for there horses and Virginia racing is not appreciated, and quite frankly offensive!

Glen Petty has and can set the record straight on Colonial Downs past and it's creation and misteps. That is all water under the bridge. As for Dutrow his kind are not and in most horsemens eyes never will be welcome in Virginia or any other state where horse racing has a history to look back upon. I with my wife operated a racing stable at Colonial and in Virginia until 2006, racing from New York to Virginia, all the states we raced in have there history of ups and downs but the future is what we must be looked to for the best product to display our states Thoroughbred Horse industry. The comments from the Hook are just what seems to be another attempt to give the racing industry a black eye. I ask the Hook to go to Colonial on a tour next summer and speak with the employees from upper management, trainers, jockies, goverment officials, grooms, off track suppliers, horse care contractors, to stall cleaners just to see what its all about not to make misleading and untrue comments about an industry they do not want to see survive in Virginia.

Mr Petty has clearly identified challenges to the gross mis-statements in this "editorial". If your publication has, as part of its agenda, a plan to denigrate racing and breeding in Virginia, please share with your readers a reasonable explanation. The vast majority of us who participate in this sport in Virginia do so with the best of intentions, with honesty and integrity, while providing the best care possible for our horses. If Ms Giles can show otherwise, please have her do so. Absent such evidence, we demand a retraction, or an explanation as to your true motives. The "truth" in these matters is obviously not on your agenda.

Ms. Giles, I've read and re-read your article several times just to make sure what point(s) you are trying to make. First of all, I am a owner and a trainer who had horses at this past summer's meet. The apparent anger with this article seems rather misdirected at all of my fellow horsemen of this state. It should rather be directed with Mr. Dutrow and corrupt racing. As in any sport, cheating and cheaters will always exist. The difference is you seem to think everyone corrupts their way to the finish line. Reality is the majority of horse trainers, riders, and owners are trying provide the best care possible for "their" athletes. The Commonwealth instituted some very tough drug rules which is probably why Mr. Dutrow wasn't at our meet.

In the present economic environment for horsemen, this article portrays the track as the free wheeling money grubber robbing everyone at every turn. Maybe if you checked your facts you would find the percentage of the handle which passes back out the gate, minus the expenses, isn't a huge amount of money left over.

Finally, try going to and see just what the majority of horses finishing 4th thru last make in purse money for the majority of the card races. See, this is what pays the athlete bills. I'm sure you will be quite perplexed just how horsemen and horse owners are still able to provide the horses for the sport. Racing today is in a very fragile state. Articles with so many factual errors lead the average novice reader to think "we" are all crooks and robbers. We need you to publish factual reports and promote the horse industry. You seem to brag about how wonderful Virginia's horse industry was. It still is. Colonial Downs is our real only venue to tout Virginia horses. Maybe we could ask you publish an article of support in which you make suggestions for betterment rather then condemnation. Have you taken the track tour on race day at Colonial? It's free and might change some of your perception how expensive it is to operate a racing facility.

Juanita Giles... who are you, and where did you come from? Credentials please~ As those have stated before me, I can not make heads nor tails of these words which you wish to call meaningful. This should have never made it past the editors desk and I feel some what sorry for you, that you have put yourself in somewhat of a professional noose.

"But rather than enhancing the Commonwealth’s reputation, horse racing in Virginia was immediately as corrupt as Rick Dutrow could hope." Really??

The Thoroughbred racing community is a fine group of people working hard to keep a wonderful sport alive and well for the generations to come. Yes, there may be some bad apples along the trail, but all in all we are a family...a tight knit family from the top right down to the bottom. From the owners, to the trainers, to the grooms, to the jockeys. The various states are trying to utilize what works best for them, but if you ask ANY horse person they will tell you its is about the SPORT and keeping it alive.

Next time Ms Giles...Do your homework and get your facts straight. Please!

Disappointed in the Hooks's lack of facts. the Editor obviously turned a cub reporter loose with no clue of the horse industry in Virginia. Take a couple trips to some horse farms in Virginia.. Make sure you get there about 4:00AM when the horse day begins & prepare to stick around on your feet till about 10:00pm 24/7!!..they are no harder working people in Virginia than horse folks. The VA Horse business goes back to our founding Virginia fathers especially the one who still sits atop Monticello mountain! Colonial has had its challenges , yet it survives. and thank the Lord it does.The Virginia racing folks also do more to protect and rescue horses maybe than any other state. Not just race horses either. Speaking of corruption, I do believe there has been a bit in the 4th estate from time to time.. Folks in glass houses. just sayin!

I've only been involved in the Virginia Thoroughbred industry for a little over two yrs and every person I have spoken with or had any professional business with have been honest, forthwright and pleasant to work with. I don't know all the financials of Colonial Downs but the money brought into local communities is a very big part of the very fabric that makes Virginia a great place to raise horses. The agenda behind this article needs to be investigated. Our economy and the business of horses if already difficult, we do not need anymore of this negative put down info. Let us put the past where it belongs; in the past. We need to help each other now, not tear us down. Remember, the TRUTH will set you free!!!

One hardly knows where to start in a reply to Ms. Giles. In approximately 12 paragraphs she attempts to carve deep gashes in both the entire state of Throughbred racing in Virginia and Colonial Downs as well as the Virginia Racing Commission without the first suggestion or solution. I suppose we are all used to this type of journalism in the electronic era. And what a shame too as Throughbred racing does have much to thoughtfully debate here in Virginia and the entire nation as well. But, a hit piece on a website that I know I personally had never heard of before and now have a poor first impression of?This important topic needed so much more space and a true journalist to attempt it. I urge Ms. Giles to stick with the spray paint and highway overpasses she no doubt excells at and I urge her editors (if The Hook uses them!!?) to fact check any future submissions they may solicit from her.
P.S.: Richard Dutrow had a license before it was taken away. Isn't Journalism just as important? Why no licenses for Journalist? Just Asking

What drivel. My question is who commissioned this article and what was their purpose? There has to be a hidden agenda for something like this just to pop up out of thin air.

My new book titled "Colonial Downs and More" will be available before Thanksgiving. It covers much of the history of Colonial Downs, as well as the history of breeding and racing in Virginia. Numerous people and horses are identified for their many contributions to the international, national and local scenes. Data are graphically displayed and photo's supply the reader with accounts of how Colonial Downs evolved. The book speaks to the background of how Virginia has formed its own identify in the horse industry.
October 23, 2011

I have to question where Ms Giles got her resources to write such an inaccurate article. While The Hook is not noted for outstanding journalism, this piece is on the bottom of any barrel. While racing in Virginia is not what any of us in the Thoroughbred industry would like it to be, the fault hardly lies with Colonial Downs. The industry has contracted in recent years as the result of many factors and Virginia horsemen and women work hard to keep our piece of the pie. The greatest factor in limiting growth of racing in our state is the refusal of our House of Delegates to pass legislation to expand our off track wagering into northern Virginia.
The rant about Rick Dutrow is very misplaced. If Mr Dutrow loses his licence in any state, Virginia will not license him. We have some of the most strict regulations in the country and that is a very good thing. We certainly do not want dishonest persons racing here and you will find the vast majority of horsemen hardworking and honest.
I would invite the writer to become better educated before writing again about racing and she should take the time to visit both Colonial Downs and other race tracks as well as some of the horse farms and training centers around the state. Then maybe she could write a proper article.

One hardly knows where to begin to criticize this article. Simply put, somehow connecting a disgraced trainer who has been banned in New York to Colonial Downs is quixotic at best. It's not like he stables his horses in Virginia. One might as well attempt to connect Muammar Gadaffi, the deceased Libyan dictator, to Kermit The Frog. The connection is that bizarre.

“You’re Off”
Ms. Giles’ article on Colonial Downs and Virginia Racing had so many inaccuracies and unsubstantiated accusations that format may prevent correcting all of them in a single response, but I’ll try to do my best.
“Virginia has never had much in the way of horse racing.” Really? Four Kentucky Derby winners, six Preakness winners, eleven Belmont Stakes winners. If anything Virginia horse racing was too strong for its breeding industry, which thrived for nearly a century despite the lack of support in the legislature. Virginia was forced to export its thoroughbreds because it lacked live racing. What might have happened in Virginia if Governor Mann hadn’t abolished pari-mutuel racing in the early 1900s? For the next century, it survived solely as a breeding state…and for those who do not know, Secretariat, who still holds the record in all Triple Crown races, is a Virginia-bred.
“Virginia embraces horse racing.” Did you know about Quality Road, Winchester, Victor’s Cry, Researcher, or Horse of the Year St. Liam (Kentucky-bred but bred by a Virginia breeder)? Let me pause here a minute while you Google them up. These are a few Virginia-breds that have recently won at racing’s top level that few in Virginia know. While Colonial Downs is nationally and even internationally known and recognized for its turf racing, the amount of Virginians that support it is hardly a full embrace. The General Assembly hardly embraces racing, strapping its functionality down with referenda requirements, breakage grabs, etc.
“Dutrow” – Rick Dutrow started two horses at Colonial Downs this summer, neither of which ran in the money. Virginia was the first state to ban steroid use and begin steroid testing on horses, and it will honor bans generated in other states. Dutrow’s ban is currently under appeal in New York. The Virginia Racing Commission has been very proactive on issues such as whip use, drug testing, licensing and breakdown research.
“Corrupt” decision on the operator’s application? The commission’s decision withstood a three-year appeal process by a disgruntled applicant that had his application turned down. It might still be contested if the applicant had not had to withdraw his appeal to deal with his own legal issues. At the time of the Commission’s awarding of the license, northern Virginia had turned down the Redskins stadium, Legoland and Disney largely due to traffic concerns. New Kent offered free land and great access. Three of the six applications submitted targeted New Kent. More than a few liked New Kent’s site.
“Enable the Downs to enjoy a monopoly?” Can Virginia really support two tracks and the pari-mutuel network to support them? The grandstand that Colonial Downs built was a $50 million facility in the late nineties when it was built. Who is going to step up and build another one and generate the hundreds of millions in handle that is needed to support it?
“Enforce the 150 race days required by the Racing Act.” The act has been (correctly) amended by the legislature several times to allow the Commission to determine the correct number of days that Virginia racing can support. Within the last half-decade, the commission has attempted several times to stretch out the number of racing days. That started some very disturbing trends in regard to attendance, field size and most importantly handle. If you don’t race for at least $175,000/day in Virginia, the economic model begins to break down quickly. Extending the number of live racing days has been attempted several times with no breakthroughs, only setbacks.
“Maryland Jockey Club involvement”? Maryland, within the last two decades, has been able to support year-round racing. Today, between the two states, there isn’t enough purse money to support year-round racing. What would lead you to believe the two states shouldn’t work together to seek this goal? Are there enough experienced personnel in a relatively new racing state, Virginia, to safely offer racing? The outriders, gate staff, and administrative personal that Colonial hires via Maryland during their meet are among the most experienced in the nation. Even the track announcer is nationally recognized for his clear race calls and accurate eye. The amount of personnel (read that jobs, Governor) needed to conduct live racing is immense.
“That’s also Colonial Downs’ address” inference to improprieties due to the commission’s physical location. That’s part of the strict regulatory nature of horse racing in Virginia. Name any other industry in Virginia whose enforcement agency is located onsite. I don’t see restaurants and pubs petitioning the Commonwealth to set up ABC enforcement offices in their parking lots. All racing employees that do the work to create live racing are those who ship in for the duration of a 33-day meet or just a weekend of the meet. So let’s get them to drive across town to get their mandatory licensing that includes fingerprint and background checks. Let’s not have enforcement staff or veterinarians available on-site to immediately address situations when they do occur. By the way, the VRC address is 10700 Horsemen’s Road. Colonial’s address is 10515 Colonial Downs Parkway. The VRC offices are located across the mile and a quarter oval from Colonial’s office. Colonial keeps the racing secretary and horsemen’s bookkeeper offices on the backstretch, next to VRC.
The labeling in the article to include “Farce”, “Corrupt”, “Bent and Broken Laws” is either unsupported or grossly misdirected. However, the publication of your article does invoke my fear. It’s scary in modern times that an article like this gets published showing how little sportswriters know about horse racing. That alone should invoke fear among those that lead our industry.

After reading this article, I am not only attempting to understand the article, but your agenda? What is your purpose? Is this a tirade against Dutrow or Colonial Downs? You are all over the map on this. Any sensible person can see there is no connection between the two. Maybe the next time you attempt to write an article, it may be best if you gather facts first.