COLONIAL DOWNS 2011: MORE OF THE SAME OR SOMETHING DIFFERENT?

Last week, the Virginia Racing Commission held their December meeting. This is the meeting where the live racing calendar is supposed to be approved by the VRC. Problem is it almost never is due to one thing or another and this year is not different.

Usually, the delay is over on-going negotiations to resolve some conflict or contract between the horsemen and the racetrack, but this year the delay is for an entirely different reasons – something new, something different, something quite interesting.

In September, the VRC received request for live racing days from the relevant parties. Noting the ongoing decline in handle (14.8% through November) and in purses as a result of same, the Virginia H.B.P.A. requested a slightly shorter meet over the same time frame – 33 days instead of 40. The plan called for racing over the a similar time period as last year running four days a week instead of five for the eight week period for 32 days plus the Fourth of July. The reduction of seven days would increase purses which have sagged over the past two years.

Colonial wasn’t adverse to this plan, and the two sides were figuring out the few details they didn’t agree upon when the management of Colonial Downs offered up an intriguing new idea.

Tired of taking a pounding financially when crowds measured in the hundreds attend live Harness racing (493 per day in 2010), and of incurring a substantial cost to pick up and put back the dirt track, Colonial Downs suggested holding the two meets simultaneously as they do at Woodbine in Canada. This would substantially reduce the racetracks’ costs and hopefully turn all of Virginia’s live racing into a profitable exercise.

Simply put, a combined meet is predicated on two things: 1) moving the meet to the fall, and 2) building a harness track.

There has been much discussion lately about a move back to the fall for the Thoroughbred meet, and a recent VHBPA survey confirms the popularity of the schedule change that would mitigate some extreme traffic and weather issues for both fans and horsemen.

Colonial Downs has offered to build a Harness track somewhere on the property as the costs of any new facility would offset future years of losses utilizing the current schedule. They have submitted several plans involving a new harness track in the infield or a new track and stable area in front of the current grandstand.

Of course, CLN the VHBPA, and the Virginia Harness Horsemen’s Association realize there are pros and cons and a plethora of logistical issues to be resolved if a “combined meet” is to become a reality.

According to Frank Petramalo of the VHBPA, “On the positive side a single fall meet may introduce harness racing to thoroughbred racing’s significantly larger fan base and will probably create significant operating efficiencies. For those reasons Colonial proposed a 2011 fall meet starting on September 3rd—Labor Day weekend—and ending on October 27th. Racing would be on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday for a total of 33 race days. On those days the harness post is at noon with thoroughbreds starting at 3:30 p.m.”

Of course there are many issues to discuss and hopefully resolve. Does the 8-hour fan day make sense? Is fall racing going to be better than summer racing? Will competition from other tracks deplete fields or will a well-summered turf course attract horses no matter what other tracks are running? Where to put the harness track? How to accommodate two racing offices? Are there enough stalls? What about an additional receiving barn for Harness? How to accommodate training so one group doesn’t freak out the other?

The list of questions is long, but the two sides are anxious to find viable solutions.

According to Petramalo, “Because of the many issues presented by a combined meet an easy solution for the VHBPA would be to stop talking with track management and the VHHA and simply say “no” to the proposed combined meet. But that would be shortsighted. The VHBPA Board of Directors recognizes that the interests of its horsemen members are tied to the survivability of Colonial Downs as a business. Our situation in Virginia is like that of the Maryland horsemen. Millions in slots revenue for purses is of little value if Laurel closes because the track loses millions each year.”

At the December VTA Board of Directors meeting, a resolution was offered and passed encouraging the racetrack and the horsemen to pursue creative solutions to improving the racing product.

Long ago somebody said “necessity is the mother of invention.” The economy of the racing and breeding industry is woeful. It is difficult for the racetrack to make money. Government regulation and gambling from inside and outside of Virginia (some legal some not) continues to negatively impact us. Our purses are sagging and our Breeders Fund is the smallest in the Mid-Atlantic by a crushing 75%. In short, what do we have to lose by trying something different if all these logistical issues can be resolved?

Hey, we aren’t the Patriots, we’re the Redskins. We aren’t 12-2, we’re 5-9, so what do we have to lose by trying something different? If it doesn’t work, we can always go back to the old formula.

Kudos to Colonial Downs and Virginia’s horsemen for being creative. The horse racing industry continues to change at an astounding pace. While taking the lead in ADW and steroid regulation, Virginia has never feared being the front-runner for change. Now is not the time to become suddenly timid no matter the complications. — Glenn Petty