The Virginia Racing Commission (VRC) held its monthly meeting yesterday at the John Tyler Building in downtown Richmond and the members of the Virginia Equine Alliance (VEA) provided progress updates on the upcoming Virginia Gold Races, Off Track Betting Centers, harness racing at Shenandoah Downs and thoroughbred racing at Morven Park.
Dr. Will Allison, President of the Gold Cup, said they are expecting a record crowd of over 70,000 for the May 7th event at Great Meadow and have arranged to purchase an additional 200 acres to not just accommodate the people, but to help traffic flow into and out of the tailgating and parking areas. He noted that since pari-mutuel wagering started at the Gold Cup several years ago, interest has really picked up and has helped drive the record attendance.
Dr. Al Griffin, Race Director of the Gold Cup, was pleased with early nominations for the races and especially the Secretariat Stakes — a 1 1/2 miles flat race. He said entries for all eight races will close this Monday at 11 AM. He thanked the horsemen for their participation and noted that half the funding of the races comes from the horsemen and the other half from sponsors.
VEA Executive Director Jeb Hannum said his group has verbal agreements with two Richmond area restaurants to open Off Track Betting (OTB) Centers inside their establishments. One is on the east end of town and the other is on the west end. The VEA needs to finalize lease agreements with them, but both restaurant owners are excited about the partnership opportunity. A contractor has already viewed the properties and provided work estimate costs. A formal application for VRC approval of the OTBs will be presented at the next Commission meeting.
VEA President Debbie Easter noted that once those two OTBs are open, the VEA will explore getting its own Advance Deposit Wagering (ADW) kiosk system up and running, which is the key to getting into the Northern Virginia market.
In regards to Morven Park in Leesburg, Mr. Hannum noted the VEA has been busy over the past six months moving that project forward. The track itself will be part of a broader Horse Park plan that Morven is putting together so all entities will need to work together in unison. Mr. Hannum praised representatives from both Morven Park and Loudoun County, who are behind the racing effort and are currently assisting with the permitting process.
The biggest challenge in preparing the turf course for regular flat racing has been addressing the undulations in the grass oval that currently exist from its days as a steeplechase course. Mr. Hannum has been encouraged by the latest engineer drawings/renderings and thinks they can break ground in summer to create a safe, level and first class surface. Mr. Hannum described the process but said Track Superintendent John Dale Thomas would give a thorough presentation at the next VRC meeting. The VEA’s goal is to get the grass growing in late summer or early fall, to give it sufficient time to nurture with hopes of racing on it in fall, 2017. Mr. Hannum added that the track will be based on the Kentucky Downs model, and the VEA received advice and feedback from horsemen at a meeting Tuesday that was attended by the combined boards of both the HBPA and VTA. He summed up the Morven project as “something evolutionary but not radical, comprised of turf racing and short meets in a beautiful setting.”
Dr. Scott Woogen, President of the Virginia Harness Horsemen’s Association (VHHA), provided an update on the upcoming fall harness races in Woodstock at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds. Moving forward, the track there will be called Shenandoah Downs and the VHHA hopes to race five consecutive weekends there beginning September 10th. They are working through the budget process now and will have a formal race date request to present at the next VRC meeting. Dr. Woogen said all construction permits have been signed and track renovation work to widen the course and bank the turns will begin tomorrow. They already have solicited bids for tote, teletimer, audio/visual and photo finish work. He would like to expand the breeders program and would like to discuss the topic at a future VRC subcommittee meeting.
Commissioner Van Clief asked for an update on the status of the three graded stakes that were run in Maryland last year. Frank Petramalo, Executive Director of the HBPA, said they are in the process of negotiating a two year deal with the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) to hold both the Grade 2 Commonwealth Derby and Grade 3 Commonwealth Oaks at either Laurel or Pimlico until the new track at Morven is ready to host graded stakes. As part of the deal, the VEA would relinquish rights of the Grade 2 Commonwealth Turf Cup to the MJC. Mr. Petramalo said he would keep everyone informed as current negotiations progress.
Commissioner Van Clief also provided an update on several VRC subcommittees with the intent of making them active again and to keep horse racing in the Commonwealth moving forward. Those included the Breeders Fund Advisory Panels (for both breeds), the Legislative Strategy Committee, Racing Safety & Medication Committee, Marketing/Wagering Technology Committee and the VRC Executive Secretary Search Committee.
In closing comments, all the Commissioners praised the recent efforts of the VEA and were summed up best by Vice-Chairman Dawson who said “it was a very positive report and I’m excited to be part of this.”