Horse Racing Wagering Bill Passes The General Assembly

This piece appeared in The Tidewater Review and was updated February 28th. Written by Ashley

Legislation that would make a new form of betting legal in Virginia and could help pave a path to allow a new owner to reopen Colonial Downs heads to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

The bill proposed by Del. Michael Webert, R-Marshall, would allow slot-like machines to be used to bet on historical horse races, which are previously contested races that generate winning numbers on the machine.

The bill passed the Senate 31-9 on Feb. 28 after it was heard by the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 27. It passed the House of Delegates 79-21 on Feb. 13.

If signed by Northam, the bill would go into effect on July 1.

Language to legalize historical horse racing was originally in former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s last budget proposal. House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, then suggested the proposal be filed as legislation.

Colonial Downs closed its doors more than three years ago after track owners and the state’s horse industry could not reach an agreement on a steady racing schedule.

Jacobs Entertainment owner Jeffery Jacobs (which operated Colonial Downs) surrendered his operating license and announced the track would close at a October 2014 Virginia Racing Commission meeting.

Horse racing operations company Revolutionary Racing, based in Chicago, has expressed interest in buying Colonial Downs from Jacobs Entertainment and reopening the facility for historical horse race betting, New Kent Economic Development Director Matthew Smolnik said.

If Revolutionary Racing were to purchase and revitalize Colonial Downs, it could bring $349.1 million and 1,407 obs to Virginia by 2022, according to a study prepared by Chmura Economics and Analytics and paid for by Revolutionary Racing. Projections include revenue from historical horse racing, off-track betting, advance-deposit wagering and horse racing events.

Virginia and New Kent County Impact

Webert said he thought he would be the perfect volunteer to carry the legislation due to his and his district’s ties to horse and farming industries.

“All of the folks that are tied to the horse industry are pretty invested in this, in that it provides a steady stream of funds to enhance and reopen Colonial Downs and that gives horsemen in my district the opportunity to go race there instead of having to race out of state in Maryland, West Virginia or Kentucky,” Webert said.

The bill’s chief co-patron, Del. Chris Peace, R-Mechanicsville, who represents New Kent County, said the passage of the legislation would have a positive impact.

“It’s a win-win for horse breeders, owners and the industry statewide, but it’s a great potential win for the community of Brickshire and New Kent County and its budget priorities,” Peace said.

Peace said Colonial Downs brought in nearly half a million in revenue annually to New Kent County and the commonwealth.

“The track has been closed down for about three years now for live racing,” Peace said. “That’s negatively impacted the horse industry statewide, but also local support for New Kent County priorities in their local budget.”

Peace also said Revolutionary Racing would invest $40-$50 million to eventually restore the track and live racing. Messages left with Revolutionary Racing this week were not returned.

“That includes the purchase price, new facilities on site, to restore the track, to restart live racing and to expand the gaming opportunities at that site,” Peace said. “Which will generate much more revenue than had been previously received by the county, for county priorities. But it will also invest in existing funding streams for supporting the horse industry statewide.”

Peace also said the potential owners, horsemen breeders and the Virginia Equine Alliance are all in support of the proposed bill.

Smolnik said the horse racing operations group is also interested in building a hotel near the horse track. However, no official plans have been submitted for county approval.

“The establishment with the historical horse racing machines would be a 24/7 operation, so people need somewhere to stay,” Smolnik said. “Revolutionary Racing is top notch. They’ve been in the industry for a long time.”

Smolnik said passing of the legislation is very critical to the economy and job market in New Kent County.

Horse Industry Impact

Virginia Equine Alliance president Debbie Easter said the bill and reopening of Colonial Downs would help make the Virginia horse industry healthier.

“Horse racing has a hard time being financially sustainable on its own anymore,” Easter said. “All of the states around Virginia have some sort of alternative gaming that helps support racing; the two work together. We do not have that.”

“This would give another revenue source to horse racing in Virginia,” Easter said. “The three revenue sources would be historic horse racing, satellite wagering facilities and advanced deposit wagering, which is wagering over the internet.”

Easter said that since the closing of Colonial Downs, horse racers have had to take their horses and money to Maryland.

“It would be great to bring live, flat racing back here to Virginia,” Easter said.