NEW KENT — The horse track was silent, but a new kind of gambling is bringing life back to Colonial Downs, which reopened Tuesday with hundreds of people lined up to bet on its success.
Richmond musician Jonathan Greenberg bugled the call to the post and Virginia tourism executive Rita McClenny led the cheers as Rosie’s Gaming Emporium opened its doors for gambling on what look like slot machines but run on parimutuel horse racing results. An estimated 500 people were waiting for the speeches to end and the fun to begin.
“This is where gaming and entertainment meet!” exclaimed McClenny, president and CEO of Virginia Tourism Corp. “You’re at the starting gate!”
The money that began pouring into 600 historical horse racing machines is expected to revive the real thing in August and September, when Colonial Downs will host a total of 15 live races at the track here for the first time since it closed in 2014.
“It’s been five years of tears falling,” said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, recalling the “significant financial hit” that the county suffered when Colonial Downs closed after 17 years.
Norment was joined on the grandstand by Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover, chief co-patron of the 2018 legislation that authorized historical horse racing machines as a legal form of gambling in Virginia and cleared the way for the purchase of the track by what is now called Colonial Downs Group, formerly known as Revolutionary Racing.
Norment has tried to thwart Peace’s bid for the Republican nomination for re-election this year, but they paid each other public compliments in celebrating the comeback of an institution they both represent in a county that is reaping the benefits.
“The sun is shining in New Kent!” Peace declared.
New Kent Board of Supervisors Chairman Tommy Tiller credited both politicians and Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, who introduced the legislation to revive Virginia’s horse industry but was absent from the opening.
“It’s having a great impact on New Kent County,” Tiller said. “It’s already been shown with the jobs that have been created and the people who have been hired.”
The county also expects $17 million in new local tax revenues from the revived racetrack and gambling emporium, which the board chairman said would help pay for a fire station that’s under construction and plans for a new elementary school and park.
Colonial Downs is the tip of the spear for escalating political efforts to expand gambling and allow casinos in Virginia, although legislators will wait for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to present a study of the issue next fall.
Critics say the new type of gambling is fool’s gold for state and local leaders, as well as the people who pay to play the games.
“The only winner of expanded gambling in Virginia is the gambling industry itself,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation. “The promised panacea of increased revenue to the state never seems to materialize, and the cost to the community of broken homes and families can be devastating.”
Colonial Downs officials say they already have spent $175 million and hired 450 people, primarily at the main emporium here, but also for an off-site betting parlor in Roanoke County that is scheduled to open early next month.
Rosie’s, named for the World War II patriotic figure Rosie the Riveter, also plans to open a site in South Richmond on Midlothian Turnpike in June, another in Hampton next fall and eventually a fifth in Chesapeake.
By the end of the year, Colonial Downs officials say they expect to spend $300 million and hire at least 800 people, although Brent Stevens, chairman of Peninsula Pacific, which owns Colonial Downs Group, estimated the number of hires this year at 1,200, including workers in part-time and seasonal jobs during the live racing season.
“The first races, in August, can’t come soon enough,” Stevens said.
Statewide, the new gambling business is expected to generate at least $25 million annually in new state tax revenues and another $25 million to Virginia’s horse industry, which has a contract with the track owner through the Virginia Equine Alliance.
The money will support higher purses for live horse races at Colonial Downs, programs for horse breeders and “different elements of the industry,” said Jeb Hannum, executive director of the alliance.
Larry Lucas, a member of the Colonial Downs Group board of directors, said his heart lies with the horse industry he has long supported, but his head tells him expanded gambling is necessary to make it work.
“Only horse racing is an unsustainable model without some other form of gaming,” said Lucas, former chairman of Revolutionary Racing, the Chicago company that spearheaded the legislative push.
Mary Howell is a believer. The New Kent resident worked for the old Colonial Downs and now is a part-time historical horse racing ambassador at the new track and emporium.
“This is the magic formula,” Howell said. “The track is going to be active and live all year round.”
The formula relies primarily on historical horse racing, which programs machines that look like slots with information from horse races in the past from across the country. People can pick their own winners after reviewing a set of variables for performance by unnamed horses, or allow the machine to automatically choose horses to win, show or place under parimutuel betting pools.
“These are not slot machines,” technician Christopher Smith said.
Joseph Fowlkes, who drove from Baltimore to see family and visit the new gambling emporium, said the experience was different from the slot machines he normally plays at Maryland’s multiple casinos, but the opportunity is the same.
“I’m interested in winning money!” said Fowlkes, who added that he’s counting on at least covering his expenses.
Louise, a Prince George County woman who wouldn’t give her last name, said: “I’ve seen better, but it is a start ... and I hope it works.”