A new push to revive the shuttered Colonial Downs racetrack is off to a running start with legislation signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday to allow gambling on historical — not live — horse races.
The legislation, sponsored by Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, is aimed at reopening Colonial Downs in New Kent County by sweetening the purse for the proposed buyer of the track with the opportunity to offer gambling on machines that rely on a video archive of historical races, with only the odds supplied to bettors.
However, Northam also issued an executive directive that would require the Virginia Racing Commission to place “reasonable limitations on the proliferation of gaming in Virginia” as it develops regulations to carry out the law. The governor also directed the commission to include “extensive stakeholder and public engagement” in the regulatory process.
“I am hopeful that this legislation will reinvigorate the horse industry and allow thoroughbred racing to return to Virginia,” he said.
The 21-year-old track closed in 2014 after its current owner — Jeff Jacobs of Colorado-based Jacobs Entertainment — surrendered its license to the Virginia Racing Commission over a dispute with the state’s traditional horsemen’s group. Revolutionary Racing, based in Chicago, is the track’s prospective buyer, and it’s counting on the money that could come from historical horse race betting.
Reopening Colonial Downs next year would generate $203.7 million in direct operating revenue through 2022, including about $162 million from historical horse racing, and create more than 400 jobs, according to a study by Chmura Economics & Analysis, a Richmond-based fiscal consultant. It also would generate about $18 million a year for Virginia’s horse industry.
Debbie Easter, president of the Virginia Equine Alliance, said the legislation grew from a strategic plan, released in December, that ultimately will “grow industry revenue, create a strong brand and develop regionally and nationally recognized racing venues.”
“We thank the governor and the Virginia General Assembly for recognizing the many horsemen and contributions they make in Virginia as well as the importance of our industry and the value it brings to local and regional economies and for the state,” Easter said in a statement Monday evening.
But while supporters see the legislation as a path to reopening Colonial Downs, restoring the industry and boosting the economy, opponents regard the proposal as a step toward casino-style gambling with slot machines.
In an opinion column published by the Daily Press of Newport News on Saturday, Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, said the legislation places no limits on the number of “historical horse race” machines that could be deployed at off-track betting sites across the state.
“Let’s be clear, House Bill 1609 has as much to do with horses as the lottery has to do with education,” wrote Carrico, who serves on the Senate Finance Committee. “While I do not support the expanding of gaming in the commonwealth, if Virginia is going to welcome gaming, it must be done the right way.”
While the reopened track would feature 25 live racing dates each year, it’s the historical race wagering that would put a gallop into the economy and tax collections, according to the Chmura study, released just after the General Assembly convened in January.
Historical racing would produce $161.9 million in revenue through 2022, compared with $7.3 million for the track races themselves. Other gambling opportunities are off-track betting, generating an estimated $27.9 million; advanced-deposit or online wagering, producing $5.2 million; and a three-day steeplechase race at $1.4 million.
Indirectly, reviving Colonial Downs would generate about $71 million and create an additional 378 jobs in either businesses that support racing, such as marketing and security, or consumer-driven retailers, the report states. The ripple effects in the economy include a boost in tourism spending that the consultant says generates an additional $73.8 million and more than 600 jobs.
State and local governments also see betting on the races as a promising source of new tax revenue — $41.7 million through 2022. Most of those revenues would come from license taxes levied on horse race wagers at Colonial Downs and 10 off-track betting sites across Virginia.
Race betting would generate $20.6 million to the state in license taxes and $13.2 million to New Kent and the other localities where the off-site parlors are based, Chmura estimates. The state and localities would collect an additional $7.9 million in sales, income and other taxes.
Initially included as an amendment in the budget introduced by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe in December, Webert’s legislation would add to law a definition for historical horse racing that would create pari-mutuel betting pools “from wagers placed on previously conducted horse races.”
The new form of gaming relies on a technology that uses a video archive of past horse races that bettors can watch on historical horse race terminals, allowing them to bet at a faster pace than they could with live racing. The machines would be subject to existing regulations of pari-mutuel wagering, as well as additional rules that the racing committee could adopt within 180 days of the law taking effect on July 1.
The terminals hide the names of the horses and the locality and date of the race until the user locks in a wager by predicting how the horses will finish. The machines can display the horses’ odds at the time the race was run for bettors to consider before placing their wagers.