Virginia Racing Commission Meeting Recap From January 17th

The Virginia Equine Alliance (VEA) outlined its vision for 2017 at this week’s meeting of the Virginia Racing Commission, which was held Tuesday in downtown Richmond.

VEA President Debbie Easter provided details on the first two Off Track Betting Centers that recently opened in Richmond — in the west end at Breakers Sports Grille (opened November 2nd) and in downtown Richmond at Ponies & Pints, which opened on Monday. There are plans to expand the OTB network this year into Chesapeake, Hampton and possibly a fifth location in southwest Virginia.

Country style racing will continue at both the spring and fall Gold Cup events with a slate of steeplechase and flat races, and a ten day harness meet will be held again this fall over a five week period in September/October at Shenandoah Downs. Negotiations continue for future thoroughbred racing at Morven Park in Leesburg. An addendum to the original Morven lease is being addressed as is the permitting process. The Virginia-bred Mid-Atlantic owners bonus program, which was approved at the last VRC meeting, will continue throughout all of 2017 and provide increased value for Virginia-bred horses. At the next VRC meeting, scheduled for early March, the VEA will probably request to conduct some Virginia-bred stakes races in Maryland again this year.

In an OTB update, Ms. Easter noted that after two months, the Breakers OTB is running at double its revenue projections. The VEA did not include any ADW in its 2017 revenue forecast, however it is working on a potential kiosk project with one of the ADW companies that currently operates in Virginia. Ms. Easter finished by saying that there are many positives heading into the year.

Darrell Wood talked about plans to market the OTBs. Much of the focus early will be on the $12 million Pegasus World Cup simulcast from Gulfstream on January 28th, followed by the weekly prep races leading up to the May 6th Kentucky Derby.

After the 2017 forecast, Ms. Easter and HBPA Executive Frank Petramalo went into more detail about the status of Morven Park and the challenges they face moving forward with the project. The three main discussion points are water availability (for the turf course), a second crossing (to get horses & trailers across the turf course and into the infield show rings), and availability of racing dates (to have a schedule like Shenandoah Downs where racing occurs on a series of consecutive weekends). Commissioner Van Clief noted that most everyone agrees Morven is the best location and noted the VRC is available to help in any way possible.

In new business, the VEA made a formal request to the VRC for approval of a $1.5 million interest bearing loan from the HBPA purse account to be used for excavation work at Morven Park once current negotiations are finalized. Mr. Petramalo noted the entire cost of the Morven project would run between $3 – $3.5 million. The purse account currently has $3 million in it and is projected to rise by $2.5 million in 2017 from ADW and OTB commissions. The loan would be in effect only if the project moves forward. The motion passed unanimously.

VEA Controller Bill Murrill presented the Alliance’s proposed budget for 2017. It is based on $18 million in handle from the two Richmond OTBs and another $8 million each from succeeding OTBs that come on board in Chesapeake, Hampton and possibly southwest Virginia. Commissioner Van Clief asked if the Gold Cup pari-mutuel steeplechase and flat races had become a profit center. Dr. Allison said they had a five year break even plan when the pari-mutuel aspect first started and they are currently on target to meet that goal. They are increasing wifi band width at Great Meadow to accommodate more wagering via personal devices this year, and a key is turning Gold Cup fans into bettors. Ms. Easter noted the VEA is looking to broadcast the Shenandoah Downs harness races into its OTB network this fall as another potential profit center. The VRC unanimously passed the VEA expenditures/budget.

In closing comments, Commissioner Reynolds thanked the VEA for its hard work and echoed that the VRC is available to help in any way they can. Commissioner Van Clief added that Virginia racing is building a brand. Commissioner Steger suggested that perhaps the Governor’s Economic Impact Fund could help with the Morven Park project.

The next VRC meeting will take place in early March, on the 6th, 7th or 8th.