For Colonial Downs, More of the Same Sounds Good

Virginia Racing Commission December 6, 2023 meeting update written by Nick Hahn (as it appeared in The Racing Biz)-

The summer meet at Colonial Downs in 2024 will look very similar to the one run earlier this year. But what comes next could be pretty interesting.

The Virginia Racing Commission approved December 6 a request by parent company Churchill Downs, Inc. for Colonial Downs to host 27 days of racing beginning July 11 in a three-day, nine-week format. With last summer’s initial Festival of Racing at Colonial Downs that included the Arlington Million (G1), Beverly D (G1) and Secretariat Stakes (G2) setting a single-day Colonial handle record (just shy of $10 million), racing officials chose the status quo, setting August 10 for the renewal.

Set Piece won the 2023 Arlington Million — the first time it was ever held at Colonial Downs (Coady Photography)

Also unaltered is the stakes-loaded Virginia Derby Day, which will again be the last day of the 2024 meet on September 7. The meet format remains largely unchanged except that post time for Friday racing has moved to 4:30 pm. Commissioners approved Thursday’s post time for 1:30 pm, but Colonial Downs is considering moving that day’s start time to 4:30 pm, as well. 

Purse levels will reach nearly $700,000 per day under a two-year contract that was approved by the Commission between Colonial Downs and the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (VHBPA); it was more than $650,000 daily in 2023. Using $700,000 as a baseline purse level, racing would expand to 40 days in 2025 assuming historical horse racing machines come online at The Rose in Dumfries, expected to house 1,000 terminals. Virginia law mandates one day of live thoroughbred racing for every 100 HHR terminals that come on-line, making the timing of the Dumfries opening sensitive. Currently there are 2790 terminals in Virginia operating with the number expected to rise, if the Dumfries location meets its opening goal, to over 4,000 by the end of next year.

There are currently seven Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums in Virginia.

While Churchill Downs is not contractually tied to hosting forty days of racing in 2025, the construction of a new 20-room dormitory on the backstretch by 2025, updates to the irrigation system along the outer rail, and improvements to the turf lighting system are part of the agreement. It was learned during the meeting that Colonial Downs will be looking for new supervision over its highly regarded racecourses, as Harrison Young, Director of Racing Surfaces, will not return in 2024.

Commissioners also approved fourteen days of harness racing from April 6 through May 19 at Shenandoah Downs, the up-and-coming harness venue that has operated racing in a county fair-like atmosphere in Woodstock, Virginia for over a century. “Shenatoga” will host racing on Saturdays and Sundays will first race post time being 1:05 PM.

Shenandoah Downs will conduct a 14-day spring harness meet in Woodstock.

Commissioners also approved ADW License renewals for TwinSpires, TVG, Xpressbet and NYRAbets. 

Debbie Easter of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association received approval after her presentation to amend Virginia breeder and stallion awards to award bonuses for Virginia-bred -sired thoroughbreds to receive bonuses from third place up, replacing the winners-only bonus that was previously applied. Virginia’s $3 million Certified Residency program that rewards thoroughbred performance that reside in Virginia for at least six months up to their two-year-old year remained unchanged.

Later in the meeting, the Commission heard a Victor-Strategies report about HHR in response to a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) concept that would remove HHR regulation from the Racing Commission and place it under the Virginia Lottery Board at first and perhaps eventually under the purview of a newly created statewide gaming commission.

Currently, a gaming sub-committee in Virginia’s General Assembly is reviewing all gaming regulation in Virginia. Under the Virginia Racing Commission, HHR has been a significant portion of the economic model that has worked well for Colonial Downs since its reopening in 2019. The 2023 meet recorded $72 million handle, down slightly from $75.1 million in 2022 but far above any prior year.

“The uniqueness of horse racing is such that you need review by a dedicated agency,” said Richard Schuetz, an expert who took part in the presentation.

VRC Chair Stephanie Nixon & Virginia HBPA Executive Director Frank Petramalo, who will leave his post after 20-plus years December 31st, shared a moment after the December VRC meeting.

Recent advancements in racing in Virginia have been encouraging enough to inspire Virginia’s First Lady, Suzanne Youngkin, to appear in a recently released video promoting Virginia’s overall horse industry and showcasing racing. The new video was presented to the commission.

The Commission thanked Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (VHBPA) director Frank Petramalo for his decades of service in representing the horsemen. Petramalo is stepping down as executive director of the VHPBA but will remain as consultant. Commissioners were introduced to Glen Berman, who is taking over Petramalo’s role.