Looks like it’s back to the future in Virginia—with a twist.
Revolutionary Racing and Peninsula Pacific April 25 announced they had closed a deal to purchase Virginia’s Colonial Downs, located in New Kent County, for “in excess of $20 million.”
Next stop: the return of live racing, perhaps as early as 2019.
“The return of horse racing to Virginia will mean the creation of new, good-paying jobs, the generation of much needed tax revenue for the state and localities, and a significant economic impact statewide,” Revolutionary’s CEO, Prentice Salter, said in a statement. “In a race, only one horse can come in first; but with the reopening of Colonial Downs, the entire Commonwealth will win.”
Colonial Downs, which opened for live racing in 1997, hosted as many as 45 days of live racing per year, though most years it held fewer. It conducted its most recent live meeting in 2013, when it held 24 days live. Since then, however, live racing has fallen victim to an acrimonious dispute between Jacobs Entertainment, which on Wednesday officially sold Colonial, and the state’s horsemen.
Since then, the horsemen, through the umbrella group Virginia Equine Alliance, have gradually been rebuilding the state’s off-track wagering network, while seeking a venue at which to hold live Thoroughbred racing. Once 10 outlets strong, the off-track wagering network had declined to none but now is back up to four. They have also held a handful of Virginia-bred and Virginia-sired races in Maryland and at Great Meadow near The Plains, Va.
Part of what had kept the track dark these last years was the difficulty of offering a critical mass of racing days with competitive purses in an environment in which every nearby state—except Virginia—had purses enhanced with revenues from other forms of gaming.
That is about to change. Earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed HB 1609 into law. That will permit Revolutionary to deploy “historical horse racing” machines, which provide players a slot machine-like experience while using the results of previously run races to generate winning numbers. The machines are expected to fatten the company’s revenue by nine figures and pump millions of dollars into racing purses.
“This moment would not be possible without the proactive leadership shown by the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam,” added Larry Lucas, chairman of Revolutionary, in a statement. “A vibrant and successful Colonial Downs is critical to ensuring that horse racing can thrive and grow in the Commonwealth. Horse racing can be traced to the earliest years of the Colony of Virginia. And every Virginian takes great pride in this being the birthplace of Secretariat, the most famous horse to ever take the track. Now with this purchase we are well on our way to bringing back this historic industry.”
Racing advocates have predicted that live racing could return to Colonial as early as 2019, although that first meet is expected to be a short one. A study commissioned by Revolutionary estimated the build-out of the off-track wagering network–including historical racing machines—to be completed by 2022, at which time, it suggested there would be 25 days of live racing at Colonial Downs.
Of course, there are many questions. Among them will be when Colonial will race and what niche in the racing world it will occupy. In its former incarnation, Colonial ran in the summer when the Maryland tracks took off and played a leading national role in turf racing, particularly for 3-year-olds. Now, however, the Maryland tracks run virtually year-round–including through the summer—and the sophomore turf division is increasingly crowded with races.
Still, there’s no question that for Virginia racing interests, the purchase of Colonial Downs by Revolutionary represents an important step toward the future.
The VEA says that the resurrection of the New Kent County track would lead to a revival of Virginia’s horse racing, breeding, training, and other commercial and agricultural enterprises involving horses.
“The General Assembly and the governor are to be commended for their support for this important legislation, legislation that not only will restore the long history of horse racing in Virginia but also will revitalize horse-related enterprises throughout the state,” said Jeb Hannum, executive director of the VEA, in a statement. “Our thanks to Gov. Northam and the bipartisan efforts in both the Senate and House for recognizing the consequential economic impact the new law will have in every corner of Virginia.”
The VEA says that economic impact studies have estimated that reopening the track will lead to as many as 500 jobs for New Kent County and the region, and by year three, generate as much as $25 million for state and local governments. Proceeds from the track also will fund an incentive program that will brings horse to Virginia to board and train.
“Virginia’s horse racing traditions date to pre-Colonial times, and we are pleased and proud to see that tradition continue,” Hannum said. “But the reopening of Colonial Downs means so much more from a tangible point of view. After almost four years without racing, it now allows us to build an industry that hopefully will enable us to be competitive with the horse industries in Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and that will lead to brighter prospects for breeders, trainers and farmers who support the racing industry.”