The following appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch Tuesday June 7th.
The Virginia horse racing industry is considering a 1,000-acre farm in King George County to race Thoroughbreds, although it could be months before a decision is made.
“Powhatan (Plantation) is our focus now,” Jeb Hannum, executive director of the Virginia Equine Alliance, said Tuesday at a Virginia Racing Commission meeting.
The alliance, a consortium of horse racing and breeding groups, is studying whether Powhatan Plantation, located east of Fredericksburg, is feasible for Thoroughbred racing.
“It’s not in the middle of nowhere,” said Frank Petramalo Jr., spokesman for Virginia horsemen, noting the property’s proximity to state Route 3 and U.S. 301. “I think it is well-suited for weekend racing.”
The alliance scrapped plans this year to bring Thoroughbred racing to Morven Park in Leesburg.
That site lacked sufficient water to operate a racetrack, Hannum said. Also, an equestrian center is being built at the park, which combined with a racetrack would have created too much activity on the grounds, he said.
The Virginia horse racing industry hit a crisis point in October 2014, when the Colonial Downs racetrack in New Kent County was shuttered.
Any lingering hopes to bring horse racing back to Colonial Downs appear to be gone, although the track owner is open to the possibility.
“We have exhausted all discussions with Colonial Downs,” Hannum said after the commission meeting.
Stan Guidroz, an executive with Colorado-based Jacobs Entertainment Inc., which owns Colonial Downs, said he has not been approached by anyone in the horse racing industry with any proposals to revitalize the track.
“We are still in a holding pattern; we continue to evaluate our options,” Guidroz said about the track. “We would like to use it as a racetrack, but no one else seems to agree with that use.”
Meanwhile, the industry is getting ready to open a satellite wagering facility in Chesapeake — its third so far — and hopes to open more off-track betting sites in Hampton and Martinsville by year’s end or early next year.
The alliance’s first two off-track betting sites are in the Richmond area, one at Breakers Sports Grille in Henrico County that opened last year and the other at Ponies & Pints in Shockoe Bottom that opened early this year.
Hannum said the betting sites have done better than expected, with Breakers averaging $32,500 a day in wagers on horse racing around the country and Ponies & Pints averaging $24,000 a day.
An application to open a wagering facility at Buckets Bar and Grill in Chesapeake was approved Tuesday. The goal is to open that site in July or August, pending approval of a conditional-use permit by the locality, Hannum said.
“Our priority is to build our war chests,” said Debbie Easter, executive director of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association, about the decision to open more betting facilities.
Easter said the industry spent a lot time and resources studying Morven Park, hence the delay in getting Thoroughbred flat racing restarted in Virginia.
The Virginia Equine Alliance is made up of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association (the breeders group), the Virginia Harness Horse Association, the Virginia Gold Cup (a steeplechase at Great Meadow in The Plains) and the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association.
The alliance has been working to stabilize all four groups since the closure of Colonial Downs, Hannum said.
It spent $800,000 to build a track for harness racing at Shenandoah Downs in Woodstock. It continues to provide financial support for the Gold Cup. It’s looking at a new program for the breeders group to expand the number of horses.
“The fourth piece is finding a home for Thoroughbred racing,” Hannum said. “It’s very difficult — such an expensive proposition. … We’re a nonprofit with limited funds. Because we started from scratch — we had zero dollars — we have made progress.”
Powhatan Plantation, which was built in 1829, was an agricultural trade center. It was purchased in 1952 by former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Raymond R. Guest, who owned, raced and bred Thoroughbreds in England, Ireland, France and the U.S., according to the plantation’s website.
The farm is now owned by Achille Guest, who wants to honor his late father and is enthusiastic about the prospect of turning the property into a racetrack, Hannum said.
Since the closure of Colonial Downs two and a half years ago, Virginia Thoroughbred flat racing has been held at Laurel Park in Maryland. Virginia Thoroughbreds will run there again this year and also in Charles Town, W.Va.
The racing commission also approved the formation of two committees Tuesday — one to develop a strategic plan for the Virginia racing industry and the other to look at ways to grow the handle, which is the total amount of money bet on a single race, day or season.