The following editorial from Virginia Thoroughbred Association Executive Director Debbie Easter appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch January 24th. Members of various horse organizations in the state may be called upon next week to contact their legislative representatives in an effort to help preserve and grow the native horse racing industry along with other equine and related agribusinesses as new gaming legislation is introduced in the General Assembly. Please visit these websites frequently in the coming days — virginiahorseracing.com, vabred.org, vhha.net and respective facebook pages of those groups for updated action plans.
A little more than six years ago, Virginia’s long and storied racing heritage looked to be over. Colonial Downs — the longtime home for horse racing in the commonwealth — held its last race in 2013 and closed its doors the following year. Somehow, the state that Secretariat once called home was looking at the end of its historic racing culture.
That is, until two years ago when Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law a bill opening the state to Class II gaming by allowing historical horse racing (HHR) machines in Virginia. Thanks to House Bill 1609, Colonial Downs was able to reopen its doors in 2019 and host 15 days of premier racing for the first time in six years.
Since then, Virginia’s equine and agricultural industries have seen new life. The Virginia Equine Alliance has seen a 700% increase in the number of horses coming into the state and, for the first time in years, the commonwealth’s horse racing is now competitive with its neighbors in West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Jobs are being created. Barns are full. Green space throughout Virginia is being preserved due to the boon in agribusiness.
Not only is Virginia competitive in the mid-Atlantic region, we have a model that is unique. Virginia farms now benefit from horses coming to the state to register in our residency program, and we now offer a highly attractive racing program for flat and harness horses. People are taking note of the Virginia model — all due to the gains from HB 1609.
Simply put, horse racing in Virginia is booming and HHR machines are the driving force behind it.
The revenues from HHR machines are expected to contribute an estimated $20 million to the racing industry each year, split between the residency program and purses for live races held in Virginia. That’s in addition to the hundreds of jobs created since 2018 and the substantial tax revenues these machines generate for the commonwealth and its localities.
However, despite all the progress we’ve made, the horse racing community in Virginia remains at risk. This legislative session, the General Assembly is considering a number of bills that would result in changes to current regulations to further expand gaming.
The proposed legislation would lead to the opening of five “resort-style” casinos that would offer Class III or “casino style” gaming. If this legislation passes and considerations are not taken in regard to the impact it would have on the state’s equine and agribusiness industries, all of Virginia’s recent progress could be for naught.
A recent study conducted by the nonpartisan, state-funded Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that while resort-style casinos would have a “positive, but modest economic impact on local economies,” it would have a potentially catastrophic effect on the state’s racing industry.
According to the study, revenue from HHRs would decrease by 45%. This would result in a nearly $10 million annual decrease in funds to support racing.
These decreases would, at best, halt the astounding progress the Virginia equine industry has experienced over the past three years and place it behind neighboring states, just as it was prior to 2013. At worst, it could put the industry on the path to a long, slow death, taking hundreds of jobs and innumerable green space along with it.
Regardless of the stance the legislature takes when it comes to the potential opening of resort-style casinos, it must keep in mind the recent progress we’ve made in restoring Virginia’s historic racing heritage and the impact it’s had revitalizing agribusiness and preserving green space throughout Virginia.
We’ve worked so hard to come this far, and we simply cannot let that progress disappear overnight.
If Class III gaming is approved, the legislature must consider practices that help support the horse racing community and Colonial Downs, similar to what other states have implemented. Otherwise, the outcome could be ruinous, leading to the closure of the track and the end of racing once again.
When considering these proposed changes in legislation, we must consider all outcomes if we want to preserve the heritage that once gave us Secretariat.
Debbie Easter is the president of the Virginia Equine Alliance. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org