From the Bay to the Blue Ridge, To the Blue Ridge

And They’re Off…..Let The Races Begin!

By Julie Reardon

And They’re Off…..Let The Races Begin!

Colonial Downs Thoroughbred Race Track is reopening in stages later this year in New Kent County.

Since colonial times, Virginia has always been known as horse country. Over the years, some world famous race horses were foaled at some of the best nurseries in the racing business right here in Virginia, including Secretariat. However, the state lacked its own venue for live Thoroughbred racing on the flat, even though it hosted the two biggest steeplechase meets in the country – the Virginia Gold Cup in the spring and the International Gold Cup in the fall at Great Meadow in The Plains.

That changed in 1997 when Colonial Downs first opened in New Kent and racing finally returned to the Commonwealth. Colonial Downs proved popular with Virginia horsemen, as well as those from nearby states for its state of the art dirt and turf tracks and modern facility. With off track wagering eventually being held at 10 locations statewide, purses were increased and money was put back into breeding and training farms. These farms, and the attendant jobs, had been steadily abandoning Virginia for greener pastures where purse incentives awarded breeders money for winners born in that state.

An acrimonious disagreement between the wagering parlors – the Virginia Horsemen and Jacobs Entertainment, the owner of Colonial Downs – eventually caused the track to close in 2013. The horsemen, united under the umbrella group Virginia Equine Alliance, nevertheless, worked on rebuilding the off track wagering network and sought a venue that could host live Thoroughbred racing in the state. Since the track closed, they held a handful of Virginia-bred and Virginia-sired races in Maryland and at Great Meadow.

Part of what had kept the track dark the past five 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. But the persistent horsemen struck pay dirt in April of 2018. Revolutionary Racing and Peninsula Pacific bought Colonial Downs from Jacobs Entertainment for a sum reportedly in excess of $20,000,000.  Gov. Ralph Northam also signed into law a bill 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.”

On Dec. 13th, the Colonial Downs Group announced that its licensing from the Virginia Racing Commission had been granted to return live racing to the Commonwealth along with approval to open a 600-unit historic horse racing (HHR) operation in New Kent County. “Rosie’s”, the electronic race game facility at Colonial Downs anticipates opening in mid-April, while the race track at Colonial Downs, in conjunction with the Virginia Equine Alliance (VEA), plans 15 days of live racing. The live racing meets will start August 8th and run through September 7th. The stabling area, undergoing renovations and improvements at the moment, is slated to open July 25th. The Colonial Downs Group is making a $300 million investment in the Commonwealth of Virginia and hopes to create 800 new jobs by the end of 2019. This effort will generate $25 million annually in state tax revenues, $17 million annually in local tax revenues and $25 million annually to Virginia’s horse industry. The project is not receiving any tax credits or government incentives.

“This is an exciting step for everyone impassioned by the rebirth of live racing in Virginia and for our team delivering on our promise to revitalize horse racing in the Commonwealth,” said Colonial Downs Group senior vice-president and general manager John Marshall. “We are already making significant progress preparing Colonial Downs to evolve into one of the country’s premier race meets.”

“It has been a long four years waiting for this day,” added VEA president Debbie Easter. “Our owners, breeders, trainers, veterinarians and everyone else associated with horse racing in Virginia have much anticipated the return of live racing at Colonial Downs and the resurgence in our industry that we know will come with it.”

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