The Virginia steeplechase community lost a pillar on December 18 as Will O’Keefe, an iconic race caller and chairman of the Virginia Fall Races, passed away at the age of 76. Condolences go out to Will’s family and friends.
The following story appeared in Bloodhorse.com.
The Virginia Fall Race Committee announced Dec. 20 the death of Will O’Keefe, a Virginia Steeplechase Hall of Fame inductee, horseman, fox hunter, and race announcer. O’Keefe, 76, was race director for the Virginia Fall races and is the son of Dr. Frank O’Keefe, who bred 1966 Kentucky Derby winner Kauai King.
“Will assumed his role of race director for the Virginia Fall Races just 10 years ago and he did it all,” the committee said in a statement. “He arrived early, stayed late, worked out the stall assignments, put up the stall cards, conducted the officials’ meeting, called for the vet check, and welcomed owners, trainers, grooms, and spectators to Glenwood Park for a day of racing.
“Then he took his seat behind the microphone. He called the races with a voice that delivered clarity, drama, accuracy, and knowledge, stride for stride. He always said he had the best seat in the house at every race meet and indeed he did. He may have had the best seat, but the Virginia Fall Race Committee certainly had a one-of-a-kind leader and a friend to all.”
O’Keefe announced his last race at Glenwood Park, at his race meet, a timber race, in October 2022.
In an article about O’Keefe written in 2020 by Betsy Burke Parker, O’Keefe estimated he would handle the race calling for around 20 meets that year and figured during his 41 years of race calling had provided the color to more than 5,000 races.
O’Keefe got into race calling when he was the race secretary for the Casanova Hunt Point-to-Point in the late 1970s. When announcer Barney Brittle stepped down in 1978, O’Keefe had to find a replacement and went to his father to handle the calls by promising he would be at his side to help identify horses and provide any details as the race unfolded.
“I realized after that first year, it’d be just as easy to do it myself,” O’Keefe told Parker. He took the microphone full-time in 1980.
O’Keefe said that having grown up going to racetracks along the East Coast with his father, he learned the finer points of a solid race call.
“There’s a certain rhythm to it,” he told Parker. “I probably have a Southern accent when I talk, but I don’t think I do when I announce. You learn to project your voice.”
O’Keefe was recognized with numerous honors for his contributions to the sport. He was named Point-to-Point Man of the Year (has also served as Virginia Point-to-Point Association secretary, and Virginia Steeplechase Association secretary and president) in 1986; won the VSA’s Francis Thornton Green award in 1990; was inducted in the Virginia Steeplechase Hall of Fame in 2007; was recognized with the Yves Henry Lifetime Achievement Award and was named Loudoun Preservation Society’s preservationist of the year in 2011; and, received the Monk Noland Award for service to the racing community by the Steeplechase Owners and Trainers Association and National Steeplechase Association in 2019.
In 1980, O’Keefe also owned and trained the Virginia Point-to-Point Association champion steeplechase mare Royal Greed.
Instead of flowers, the family would like donations to be made in O’Keefe’s name to the Virginia Fall Races, PO Box 2, Middleburg, Va., 20118. A celebration of life in his honor and memory will be held in the spring.
Frank Petramalo, longtime Executive Director of the Virginia HBPA, announced he will be retiring at the end of the year. He will be replaced by Glen Berman who served as Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Director and General Counsel from 2009-2016 and most recently, as head of the Florida HBPA.
Petramalo served on Virginia’s HBPA Board from 2001-2005 and took over as Executive Director in his final year. A native of Rochester, New York, he was introduced to racing at a young age betting harness races at nearby Batavia Downs. “Everyone in the neighborhood was crazy about playing races there,” he said. “I remember winning my first daily double on a 5-5 combination that paid $18 and was hooked instantly.”
Petramalo bought his first horse in 1995 from Virginia horsewoman Diana McClure and they turned it into a steeplechaser. McClure acquired the horse from Billy Turner, who was trainer of the legendary Seattle Slew. Petramalo has owned jump horses ever since.
Highlights from Petramalo’s HBPA stint read like a history of Virginia racing. He played a lead role in many accomplishments and victories. Included in the lengthy list: Ensuring that a percent of a track’s live race signal sales are directed to horsemen, legalizing Advance Deposit Wagering (ADW) in Virginia, increasing the number of OTBs that Colonial Downs can operate from six to ten, increasing the percent of ADW handle that goes to the track and horsemen, formation of the Virginia Equine Alliance (VEA), legislating a source market fee that helps fund the VEA and enabled it to open four OTBs while Colonial Downs was shuttered, and to enact legislation that allows Historical Horse Racing (HHR) in the state — which led to the reopening of Colonial in 2019 and a new era of higher purse levels and quality racing.
“Virginia racing had always been small on the radar screen,” said Petramalo. “The most we ever raced in New Kent was a 45-day meet in 2008 which took place over nine weeks. The HBPA got involved in some cutting edge and very interesting stuff over the past couple decades though. In 2001, the horsemen had a contract with Colonial and weren’t getting a dime on the sale of the Colonial simulcast signal. They needed horsemen’s approval to race so in 2002, we negotiated a deal and for the first time, horsemen got 50% of host fees.”
“The HBPA got involved in lobbying and was very successful. In cooperation with the track, increasing the amount of OTBs to ten was huge,” he added. “Keep in mind these were the old days and financing purses came from year-round wagering at the OTBs. We worked a partnership agreement with Colonial and from that, set up a matrix to determine the number of live race days each year. We set a daily purse goal of $200,000 a day and based on how much was in the purse account, figured out how many days we could run.”
The formation of VEA in 2015 was key to bringing racing back to Virginia. “That was solely Debbie Easter’s idea,” said Petramalo. “We put together a horsemen’s organization after Colonial shut down and moved forward as a non-profit corporation. We developed a four-way partnership and went back to the legislature to propose that the five percent source market fee of wagers that went to Colonial should go to the VEA. It became a direct funding mechanism and has worked out great. The VEA opened up OTBs as a result which was totally unprecedented.”
Later that year, the VEA ran a harness meet in Nelson County (south of Charlottesville) and in 2016, opened Shenandoah Downs in Woodstock which begins its ninth season of standardbred racing on April 6. In 2017, Larry Lucas, who had been Board Chairman of Youbet.com, met with Petramalo and Stephanie Nixon about his group’s desire to buy Colonial Downs. In order to move forward, they needed to get legislation in place that allowed HHR. He asked the HBPA to support the cause.
“We worked closely with Larry’s people and lo and behold, legislation was enacted to enable HHR. We negotiated a revenue sharing agreement and the VEA’s four member groups share in the HHR revenue. Nobody expected HHR to be as lucrative as it has turned out to be.”
This year, over $4 billion will be wagered on 2,790 HHR terminals in play at seven Rosie’s Gaming Emporium locations acrosss the state.
“We started out at purse levels of $200,000 a day and with the HHR revenue sharing agreement, were over $690,000 a day this year. We paid out $18.7 million in purses in 2023 and 75% of that came from HHR revenue. The trajectory is going forward and upwards.”
Petramalo hands the torch off to Berman on January 1 and leaves the industry in an enviable spot. “I think it’s a nice position to be in. Virginia is one of the few states where racing’s future looks pretty good as far as increasing days and purses. Glen should be a perfect fit here. Where else can you have an opportunity to do something positive versus handling damage control.”
There will be challenges to tackle in the near future, mainly in the expansion of gaming. “That is something I never expected,” said Petramalo. “When I came to Virginia you couldn’t shop on Sundays, but things change of course. The state put its foot in the water with HHR followed by sports gambling, fantasy games and casinos. There are currently four casinos being built with a fifth one coming at some point. Legislation is pending to allow grey machines to come back to the extent they will be taxed and regulated. They are a huge competitor for us. We’ll all be keeping our fingers crossed that HHR continues to sustain itself and can compete with other forms of gaming.”
Petramalo said he will miss working with various Boards to help better the racing business. “I served under two HBPA presidents — Robin Richards and David Ross — and a number of Board members like Donna Dennehy, Jill Gordon-Moore and Susie Chatfield-Taylor who are all very good and very smart people. Same with the other HBPA Board members that have been there for a long time. It’s been a real pleasure to have worked with them. It’s a group of horsemen so you’ll always hear different opinions, but they made working there a lot of fun.”
Asked if he’ll miss being involved in racing on a day-to-day basis, Petramalo admitted that he will. “During the meet, I spend most of my time on the backstretch. The time between 6 and 10 AM on the backside is the most enjoyable part of the racing experience. There are a lot of characters working back there that make the day fun and interesting. There is great satisfaction in being able to help grooms. The people there work seven days a week and the pay is pretty low. We provided medical, dental and optical care for folks back there. Dental care was very important – we spent $45,000 last year in dental bills alone. Satisfaction comes from helping folks who could really benefit,” he added. “They are pleased as punch that you are helping them. They are very nice people. The part I won’t miss though is being away from home in New Kent for three solid months and coming home only on Sundays.”
–Virginia Racing Commission December 6, 2023 meeting update written by Nick Hahn (as it appeared in The Racing Biz)-
The summer meet at Colonial Downs in 2024 will look very similar to the one run earlier this year. But what comes next could be pretty interesting.
The Virginia Racing Commission approved December 6 a request by parent company Churchill Downs, Inc. for Colonial Downs to host 27 days of racing beginning July 11 in a three-day, nine-week format. With last summer’s initial Festival of Racing at Colonial Downs that included the Arlington Million (G1), Beverly D (G1) and Secretariat Stakes (G2) setting a single-day Colonial handle record (just shy of $10 million), racing officials chose the status quo, setting August 10 for the renewal.
Also unaltered is the stakes-loaded Virginia Derby Day, which will again be the last day of the 2024 meet on September 7. The meet format remains largely unchanged except that post time for Friday racing has moved to 4:30 pm. Commissioners approved Thursday’s post time for 1:30 pm, but Colonial Downs is considering moving that day’s start time to 4:30 pm, as well.
Purse levels will reach nearly $700,000 per day under a two-year contract that was approved by the Commission between Colonial Downs and the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (VHBPA); it was more than $650,000 daily in 2023. Using $700,000 as a baseline purse level, racing would expand to 40 days in 2025 assuming historical horse racing machines come online at The Rose in Dumfries, expected to house 1,000 terminals. Virginia law mandates one day of live thoroughbred racing for every 100 HHR terminals that come on-line, making the timing of the Dumfries opening sensitive. Currently there are 2790 terminals in Virginia operating with the number expected to rise, if the Dumfries location meets its opening goal, to over 4,000 by the end of next year.
While Churchill Downs is not contractually tied to hosting forty days of racing in 2025, the construction of a new 20-room dormitory on the backstretch by 2025, updates to the irrigation system along the outer rail, and improvements to the turf lighting system are part of the agreement. It was learned during the meeting that Colonial Downs will be looking for new supervision over its highly regarded racecourses, as Harrison Young, Director of Racing Surfaces, will not return in 2024.
Commissioners also approved fourteen days of harness racing from April 6 through May 19 at Shenandoah Downs, the up-and-coming harness venue that has operated racing in a county fair-like atmosphere in Woodstock, Virginia for over a century. “Shenatoga” will host racing on Saturdays and Sundays will first race post time being 1:05 PM.
Commissioners also approved ADW License renewals for TwinSpires, TVG, Xpressbet and NYRAbets.
Debbie Easter of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association received approval after her presentation to amend Virginia breeder and stallion awards to award bonuses for Virginia-bred -sired thoroughbreds to receive bonuses from third place up, replacing the winners-only bonus that was previously applied. Virginia’s $3 million Certified Residency program that rewards thoroughbred performance that reside in Virginia for at least six months up to their two-year-old year remained unchanged.
Later in the meeting, the Commission heard a Victor-Strategies report about HHR in response to a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) concept that would remove HHR regulation from the Racing Commission and place it under the Virginia Lottery Board at first and perhaps eventually under the purview of a newly created statewide gaming commission.
Currently, a gaming sub-committee in Virginia’s General Assembly is reviewing all gaming regulation in Virginia. Under the Virginia Racing Commission, HHR has been a significant portion of the economic model that has worked well for Colonial Downs since its reopening in 2019. The 2023 meet recorded $72 million handle, down slightly from $75.1 million in 2022 but far above any prior year.
“The uniqueness of horse racing is such that you need review by a dedicated agency,” said Richard Schuetz, an expert who took part in the presentation.
Recent advancements in racing in Virginia have been encouraging enough to inspire Virginia’s First Lady, Suzanne Youngkin, to appear in a recently released video promoting Virginia’s overall horse industry and showcasing racing. The new video was presented to the commission.
The Commission thanked Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (VHBPA) director Frank Petramalo for his decades of service in representing the horsemen. Petramalo is stepping down as executive director of the VHPBA but will remain as consultant. Commissioners were introduced to Glen Berman, who is taking over Petramalo’s role.
Schedule to mirror 2023 season racing Thursday through Sunday
Racing dates for 2024 at Colonial Downs were approved today at the Virginia Racing Commission meeting. The 27-day live racing season will be held over nine weeks from Thursday, July 11 through Saturday, September 7. The New Kent racetrack will race three days per week, Thursday through Saturday.
“The success of the 2023 meet, which brought weekend racing back to Colonial Downs, was a credit to the tremendous support here in Virginia from the owners, trainers, horseplayers, hard-working staff, and partners,” said Senior Director of Racing Operations Frank Hopf. “We’re excited to build upon the momentum and look forward to a tremendous 2024 season.”
The Festival of Racing including the Grade 1 Arlington Million is slated for Saturday, August 10. The Grade 3 Virginia Derby will anchor the closing day card on Saturday, September 7. The entire stakes schedule for the 2024 season will be made available in the coming weeks.
The 2023 season offered more than $650,000 per day in purses and boasted an average of 8.19 starters per race. Average daily handle was $2,658,028. Purse money for the 2024 season is expected to be nearly $700,000 per day.