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Update: Two bills in the General Assembly could allow Colonial Downs to reopen


Colonial Downs is taking the issue of horseracing in Virginia to the General Assembly. Through legislation geared to deliver profits for the company, track owners may be able to bypass current regulations and reopen as early as this year.

To accomplish it, Colonial Downs brought in a new interim president, Stan Guidroz. Guidroz has worked for racetrack owner Jeff Jacobs for more than 12 years, and currently serves as vice president of southern operations at Jacobs’ company, Jacobs Entertainment Inc., in Louisiana.

He is taking over for former president Ian Stewart, who is transitioning into retirement and a senior advising position for some of Jacobs’ business projects.

“[Jacobs] couldn’t reach an agreement with the horsemen, so now he wants to legislate it instead,” said Virginia Thoroughbred Association executive director Debbie Easter.

Guidroz said that in his 12 years working in Louisiana he has success strengthening the gaming industry from a legislative perspective. He hopes to do the same in Virginia and feels confident fans will be back enjoying high-end racing at Colonial Downs this year.

“Our focus is long term,” Guidroz said. “It’s unfortunate that we’re in the situation we’re in right now, but we’d like to make the right improvements to the system so that this is behind us and we can continue to improve horse racing in Virginia for years to come.”

Guidroz said Colonial Downs plans to make up for lost time, and taxes, as well as create 1,000 direct jobs, and 3,000 indirect jobs, with the passage of two pieces of legislation that include a stabilization bill and historical (or “instant”) racing. When the track closed it took with it 280 jobs and tax revenue worth $400,000 annually to New Kent County.

Passage of a “stabilization” bill will allow Colonial Downs to apply for a 2015 limited license with the VRC and bring back the Grand Slam of Grass, a high-end derby that will include the top thoroughbreds and create opportunities for horsemen to earn up to $5 million in bonuses, Guidroz said.

A “historical” racing bill will allow for a complete summer racing series, with bets being wagered by computers similar to slot machines. Guidroz said that this model has worked in states like Kentucky and Arkansas, and has kept the thoroughbred market competitive against other gaming industries, like casinos.

While high-end racing and computer generated bets may be cheaper and better for Jacobs’ bottom line, Easter said the purses for high-end races are generally won by horses that are out of state, creating little benefit for Virginia.

“The percentage of high-end horses in the country is very small. Those are the very best horses around the country. There aren’t a lot of those, and if I’m a trainer in Virginia I don’t have a barn full of those. [Jacobs is] basically creating races that our guys in Virginia can’t compete in,” Easter said.

“[Jacobs] will take all the purse money that is supposed to go to Virginia horsemen, and he is going to use the large majority of it to put on a few days of high-end racing. Typically people from out of state come win the money and take it away, so there’s no benefit to the state,” she said.

Colonial Downs shut its doors last November after 17 years of horseracing in New Kent County. The end came after failing to reach an agreement on a 2014 thoroughbred season contract with the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

Jacobs disagreed with the VHBPA about the length of the season and the weight of the purses. He wanted to see a shorter season with higher stakes on each race, with the hopes that it would attract higher-quality horses for high-end races.

“There’s just a certain amount of money that’s generated for the purse. The fewer days you race, the higher-quality horses you can bring in. The high-quality horses aren’t going to come in for little money,” said vice president of Colonial Downs, Jeanna Bouzek.

Easter disagreed with this theory, saying that running a shorter racing season with higher purses requires the top three percent of horses in the country, making it difficult for most Virginians to compete financially or for their horses to compete physically.

“It’s more about opportunities for our guys. Horses aren’t machines. They can only run once every two, three or four weeks. A person that’s a horse person in Virginia is going to get maybe one opportunity a year to run one race in Virginia,” she said.

Reopening the track holds consequences for more than Colonial Downs and Virginia horsemen. When the track closed, along with eight Off-Track Betting (OTB) facilities, New Kent County not only lost horseracing as a sport, but as a form of tax revenue. The county is now facing a $400,000 deficit, including admissions, business license and sales taxes, County Administrator Rodney Hathaway said last October.

Bouzek, who began laying people off a year ago, said that the loss of jobs and revenue has had a profound impact on the county’s economy, even affecting the public schools ability to have summer school last year.

“It’s been tremendous,” she said. “When you lay off more than 100 people from across the state it’s got an economic impact on the locality. It’s a lot of tax money that was lost everywhere that we had an OTB site.”

Guidroz said that he and Jacobs feel optimistic about reopening Colonial Downs this year, as well as situating Virginia horseracing on a national stage through legislative changes.

“[Jacobs’] ultimate hope is that we are racing again this year, and that we are able to make high-end racing a cornerstone at Colonial Downs, as well as create the dynamic shift that needs to take place in Virginia so that it’s a long term solution,” Guidroz said.

Easter said that the VRC is looking into alternatives to Colonial Downs, including its own legislation that puts horseracing back into the hands of the racers.

The bill states that if it is passed, Colonial Downs must “surrender its unlimited license to own and operate the racetrack” and the OTBs. This bill would also make the VRC responsible for determining organizational representation of horse owners and trainers at races, and would reduce account wagering fees, and reallocate the four percent formerly received by Colonial Downs to a nonprofit stakeholder.

“Ideally, what would be great is if Mr. Jacobs wants to be a casino or gambling company, great. Let us run racing. There’s no incentive in his bill to make him run racing, and that’s a catalyst for growing the industry,” Easter said.

“We all want Mr. Jacobs to be profitable and successful, but this thing has to work as a partnership, and Mr. Jacobs is not acting like he wants to be in a partnership these days,” she added.

This report includes information from Tidewater Review archives.

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

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