Revoked: Foxfield license down to wire
When Foxfield president Benjamin Dick learned that the racing association's ABC license had been put on probation for 18 months, he thought his longstanding dispute with the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control was winding down.
After three days of hearings, two dozen witnesses, and dueling videotapes last fall to determine whether Foxfield's license would be yanked, ABC hearing officer Clara Williamson issued her opinion January 31, ordering probation and an $8,000 fine.
That decision did not sit well– with the ABC. Christopher Curtis, the ABC's chief enforcer, fired off a memo denouncing Williamson's decision as "clearly incorrect and irrelevant" and asking for revocation of Foxfield's liquor license.
The ABC board of directors granted that request February 26, overruling its hearing officer and pulling Foxfield's license.
The revocation has Foxfield officials steaming.
"That hearing was nothing but a ruse," fumes Dick. "It makes the whole due process tainted."
Worse, claims Dick, who is also Foxfield's attorney, was that he'd met with Curtis and the chief operating officer, Curtis Colburn, on February 20, the day before Curtis wrote his memo requesting revocation.
"I said we'd live with [Williamson's] decision," says Dick. "They both started frowning. I think they were disappointed we didn't appeal."
Ten days later, Foxfield was notified that its license had been revoked. "It made me look like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz with steam coming out of my ears," says Dick.
ABC spokesperson Becky Gettings says the hearing officer's decision wasn't overturned, it was "modified" to revoke Foxfield's license, and that the ABC board of directors approved the modification.
Does it seem strange that the ABC board would radically modify the results of its own hearing officer? "We're not going to give an opinion when a hearing is pending," says Gettings. She does say that appeals are a normal part of the administrative hearing process.
Foxfield insiders have long charged that their event– despite 25 years without a human fatality or serious injury– has faced an official vendetta, and Dick charges that the ABC hierarchy has long wanted to revoke Foxfield's license. When the hearing officer didn't do that, the board went behind closed doors to revoke the license. "I have a problem with that," says Dick.
On April 11, Foxfield was invited to submit a compromise offer to the ABC board in which it would pay a $1,000 fine and an additional $1,500 fine if its security and education don't improve at this year's race. The board considered the compromise, along with Foxfield's appeal, on April 15– less than two weeks before the spring races are scheduled to run. The board's decision was not available at press time.
If the board doesn't reinstate its license, Foxfield plans to go to Albemarle Circuit Court to ask for a stay of the revocation.
Whatever happens, Dick is adamant that the horses will run April 26 and that liquor can be served by caterers who hold ABC licenses as well as by the tailgaters who've rented spaces.
In November, Coleburn told The Hook that guests invited to corporate tents could legally drink, but anyone else drinking would be breaking the law. "Foxfield itself wouldn't be violating the law," he said. "Individuals would be guilty."
A call to ask Coleburn for comment on the vendetta assertion was referred to Gettings, who says, "We're not going to try it in the media. We're not going to answer that."
Dick is not reassured, and he promises to "put on his Sam Spade hat" to find out who is behind the revocation. And Foxfield's director, Patrick Butterfield, has asked Senators John Warner and George Allen, Congressman Virgil Goode, and Delegate Rob Bell to look into Foxfield's treatment by the ABC board.
For the spring race, Foxfield will not sell general admission tickets at the gate. Instead, it's calling advance-purchase tickets "invitations." The race has also beefed up its medical facilities, including installing a helicopter landing pad that the county police requested, according to Dick. And he pledges to continue the education process with the college students who landed Foxfield in hot water with the ABC in the first place.
"Now it's just a question of whether we can get the kids to come around," observes Dick.
As this issue was going to press, The Hook learned that the ABC board had rendered an opinion on Foxfield's appeal and suspended its equine sporting event license for 15 months– unless Foxfield hires one security guard for every 200 tickets sold to crack down on all alcohol violations.