Update: Talks on thoroughbred season delayed

NEW KENT — The Virginia Racing Commission scheduled a meeting for Wednesday morning to discuss the Colonial Downs thoroughbred racing season, only to cancel it Tuesday afternoon.

Bernie Hettel, executive secretary of the VRC, said Tuesday that the meeting was postponed after Todd Haymore, Virginia's Agricultural and Forestry secretary, could not attend the meeting and wanted to become more informed on the debate between the racetrack and the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (VHBPA) over the future of the thoroughbred season.

A new meeting date has not yet been set.

Frank Petramalo, executive director of the VHBPA, said in a phone interview Monday that although the meeting was scheduled, an agreement between the two parties was “unlikely.”

Without a signed contract between the two parties, thoroughbred racing in Virginia has halted and thoroughbred Off-Track Betting has ceased.

According to Petramalo, the horsemen's association and racetrack spent a lot of time last week discussing proposals to guarantee the 2015 and 2016 thoroughbred seasons.

“We seemed to be fairly close to an agreement but the discussions broke down when Colonial Downs insisted that there be a permanent agreement that the OTB sites wouldn't be shut down in the future in the event of a contract dispute,” he said.

As part of one of the proposals, Colonial Downs would be able to hold an eight-week, 24-day race schedule, as the Virginia Racing Commission ordered in June, and the VHBPA would allow Colonial Downs to spend $300,000 from the horsemen's purse account each year for operating expenses, Petramalo explained.

This most recent negotiation attempt, however, barely made it out of the gate.

“We never got to discuss those terms with Colonial Downs because we haven't heard back from them,” he said.

According Hettel, the commission is hopeful that the two parties will move forward. 

The stalemate has race enthusiasts such as Tad Berman chomping at the bit.

“After 17 years, Virginia racing has hit rock bottom,” said Berman, the originator of the Virginians for the Integrity of Horseracing Facebook page, in an email Monday afternoon.

“We've got a track owner who is only interested in Internet wagering and wants to run less than 10 days of live racing a year. We've also got a compliant horseman's association who is willing to give in to the track's demands instead of fighting for our rank and file horsemen, as evidenced by this most recent proposal, and a racing commission that only wants to make sure that racing doesn't come to a grinding halt on their watch instead of cracking down on Colonial and putting a stop to all this foolishness.”

Since the dispute began six months ago, New Kent County has estimated a $402,000 loss in local revenue from the lack of the 2014 thoroughbred season.

According to New Kent County Administrator Rodney Hathaway, most of the money is attributed to the loss of OTB revenue but does factor in meals taxes and admission taxes.

Residents could see a tax increase in future fiscal years to make up for lost revenue if Colonial Downs continues to operate without thoroughbred racing at the track and OTBs, according to Hathaway.

The VHBPA has lost $1.5 million as a result of the contract dispute. Colonial Downs has lost in excess of $2 million, while the VRC has lost $337,000.

Race fans are also feeling the impact.

“I used to love going every weekend up to the OTB facility at Martinsville,” North Carolina resident and avid race fan Dennis O'Connor said earlier this month. “At least seven people I know have been driving the four to six hours to West Virginia to bet instead of the one-hour trip to Martinsville. It's a shame that it's come to this, and it's really ridiculous.” 

“Let's not forget that the end result of these three groups' efforts has resulted in zero race days for 2014, and from the looks of this proposal, possibly the end of ‘regular' racing in Virginia forever,” Berman added. “Shame on all of them.”

The new negotiations came after Colonial Downs' announcement in June that it was taking legal action to prevent the racing commission from ordering terms for the 2015 thoroughbred season.

The VRC ordered Colonial Downs in June to enter into an eight-week, 24-day 2015 thoroughbred season contract with the VHBPA by July 1. Doing so would immediately reopen the four Off-Track Betting facilities that were closed in January after the two parties refused to sign a 2014 contract.

As part of the proposed agreement, the VRC would recant its request for a 2014 thoroughbred season, meaning that the season would be canceled.

“They have the right and power to order us to enter into a contract but not with special terms,” said Colonial Downs President Ian Stewart earlier this month. “They exceeded their statutory authority.”

The track was given 30 days to file the actual appeal. As of Monday, no formal complaint had been filed in Richmond Circuit Court.

Stewart said earlier this month that Colonial Downs is still holding out for a thoroughbred season with fewer race days and higher purses, while Petramalo insisted that having a shorter season would not be financially beneficial for the horsemen.

According to Petramalo, the VHBPA is looking for other opportunities for flat racing, or non-hurdle racing, during the steeplechase season.

The thoroughbred contract deadlock does not affect harness racing. Currently, the four open OTBs, including two in Richmond, are accepting bets on harness racing, which will run for 24 days in September and October.

Three phone calls to Stewart were not returned as of Tuesday afternoon.

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

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