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Colonial Downs and horse racing association urged to compromise on 2014 schedule

Follow-up meeting scheduled March 27

By Amy Jo Martin, amartin@tidewaterreview.com

Tidewater Review

11:28 AM EDT, March 19, 2014

NEW KENT

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Virginia thoroughbred breeders and trainers are urging Colonial Downs and the Horsemen's Benevolent Protective Association (HBPA) to reach an agreement on the 2014 thoroughbred race season before it's canceled.

“We have got to get you guys together on a number that you can live with,” said horse breeder and New Kent County resident, Chris Kuhn. “Please, you guys, get together, figure it out and get going. We’re going to lose this whole thing if [you] don’t.”

“If we blow it this year, why will anyone want to come to Virginia?” echoed thoroughbred breeder and owner Gillian Gordon-Moore. “We need to come up with an answer.”

The Virginia Racing Commission (VRC) held a meeting on Monday morning to listen to the two parties, which have been unable to agree on the length of the 2014 thoroughbred season and a shared monetary figure. Their contract ended on Jan, 29, causing off-track betting (OTB) facilities to strike thoroughbred betting earlier this year.

VRC President J. Sargeant Reynolds, Jr. admitted at the opening of the meeting that the commission has “little authority” over Colonial Downs officials and the association, but was hoping for a quick resolution to save the OTB for thoroughbred racing and the 2014 thoroughbred season.

“The real shame is for the Virginia racing fans. They’re the ones that are not able go to the OTBs and place a bet, place a dollar,” Reynolds said.

“I know we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars,…[but] it’s really hurting our racing fans, and quite honestly, we’ll be very lucky to get them back.”

Thoroughbred OTB cannot take place unless there is live thoroughbred racing in Virginia.  Since Colonial Downs is the only thoroughbred track in the Commonwealth, it is dependent on the track’s 2014 thoroughbred season.

Last year, the VRC approved a 25-day thoroughbred race schedule, identical to 2013. But since then, Colonial Downs and the HBPA have been at odds about the schedule and finances, and have not renewed its contract.

According to Colonial Downs President Ian Stewart, the racetrack currently does not profit from the thoroughbred season.

As a result of the contract dispute, Colonial Downs closed its eight off-track betting facilities to thoroughbred racing in February. The facilities, which bring in $80 million annually, cannot allow thoroughbred racing betting until a contract is signed.

According to HBPA Executive Director Frank Patramalo, his organization, on behalf of the horse owners and trainers who race at Colonial Downs, proposed that the 2014 thoroughbred season be seven weeks, or 28 days, and that the association pay the track $280,000. Colonial Downs had originally asked for a 12-day race schedule and $300,000 to help the track keep up with operational costs.

“We had put together a package and it seemed like we had a deal,” Patramalo explained at the meeting Monday.

However, when HBPA and Colonial Downs went to an arbitration meeting last week (with a mediator), the racetrack instead requested six races for the thoroughbred season, and $500,000.

“Colonial Downs didn’t want to do a deal,” Patramalo said. “This is not the first time we’ve had a dust up, but this year is completely different. We’ve never had to shut down.”

Patramalo added that the arbitration meeting lasted no more than 45 minutes before the judge found that the two parties were irreconcilable.

According Stewart, his company and HBPA have been at odds about the finances and 2014 thoroughbred schedule for a long time and were never close to an agreement.

“The only way that we can bring more money in is by raising the purse in the six races and drawing in the nationally recognized horses and jockeys,” Stewart said in a phone interview last week.

“We need top notch race talent and right now Colonial Downs is a third-rate racetrack. That is not okay with me.”

Stewart explained that a majority of the money being proposed by the HBPA is “illusionary” and contingent on whether the OTB facilities make a profit.

VRC Vice-President D.G. Van Clief proposed Monday via teleconference that as a compromise, Colonial Downs and the HBPA consider a seven-week, or 21-day, thoroughbred season, with races being held Friday through Sunday. Doing so would reduce Colonial Downs’ operating costs and allow the track to have higher purses.

“Doing nothing is going to cost us. We’re already left $500,000 of revenue on the table,” said Van Clief, who recommended that an outside racing official come on board to help with the three to five-year program.

“It would be a one-year transition. We need a deal now for the 2014 season.”

Thoroughbred owner and breeder John White reminded the VRC that it has an obligation to its taxpayers and residents of the Commonwealth to make the best decision for everyone and that Colonial Downs has a responsibility to its owner, Jacobs Entertainment, to “get out of the business” if it’s not turning a profit.

“My interpretation is that Colonial Downs would just as soon drop all the money out of a helicopter and have the racing done in one day than give us a fair shot,” he said.

The groups will meet again on Thursday, March 27 at 10 a.m. in the VRC office (behind Colonial Downs, near the stables) to further discuss Van Clief’s proposal. The public is invited to attend and voice their opinions on the matter.

Martin can be reached by phone at 804-885-0040.