Source: Library of Congress, Bookies taking bets at horse races. Warrenton, Virginia
Racing horses has a long tradition in Virginia, after colonists brought the first horses in 1609. In contrast to the anti-gambling Puritans in Massachusetts, the Virginia colonists maintained English gambling traditions, including betting on horses. The Virginia Company of London, the financier of Virginia colonization until 1624, relied upon lotteries to survive at one point. After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, English society replaced the Puritanism of Oliver Cromwell with widespread gambling.1
Horse racing became identified as the "Sport of Kings" because only the very wealthy could afford to import horses for breeding or to maintain a horse for no productive use other than racing. Everyone could bet, but the gentry in colonial Virginia may have been the only class able to afford owning a race horse.
In 1674, the York County court imposed a fine on a tailor who had the nerve to race his horse ("it being contrary to Law for a Labourer to make a race, being a sport only for Gentlemen"). The court decision may have been triggered by the local gentry seeking to establish its status in a stratified society, but action may also have been triggered by revelation of a conspiracy between the horse owners to determine in advance which horse would win the race. Cheating on horse races in Virginia is as old as horse racing itself...2
Horse races occurred long before any site in Virginia was dedicated to serve exclusively as a race track. Many races were 1/4-mile straight dashes held on Saturday afternoons on open fields and straight sections of road, or "best-of-three" challenges where horses would run separate races up to 3-4 miles in one day. Formal races were organized on open courses through the Virginia countryside ("steeplechase" races were named after cross-country contests where start/finish lines were marked by steeples of churches), on roads between drivers with wagons (equivalent to modern harness races with Standardbred horses), and on circular racecourses (equivalent to modern Thoroughbred races viewed from grandstands at racetracks).
The first racetrack in the colonies was built at Hempstead Plain on Long Island, and the first in Virginia was a 1-mile oval operating by 1739 at Williamsburg. Horses circled the track several times to complete one race, compared to today's races of one-and-a-quarter miles (one-and-a-half miles for the Belmont Stakes). In the 1700's, Virginia had multiple racetracks, including:3
- Henrico County (Bermuda Hundred, Malvern Hill, Varina, Ware)
- Northampton County (Smith's Field)
- Northumberland County (Fairfield, Scotland)
- Rappahannock County (Rappahannock Church)
- Richmond County (Willoughby's Old Field)
- Surry County (Devil's Field)
- Westmoreland County (Coan Race Course, Yeocomico)
In 1752, William Byrd III claimed he had the fastest horse in the colonies. That challenge was bold enough for a member of the Maryland aristocracy to walk his horse 150 miles to Anderson’s Race Ground in Gloucester for a match race. In the first Maryland-Virginia contest, the Maryland stallion beat Byrd's horse plus two other Virginia stallions owned by John Tayloe. Byrd went on to demonstrate how excessive gambling can lead to bankruptcy.4
in 1864, the Union and Confederate armies fought at the North Anna River, west of the horse track near Hanover Junction
Source: Library of Congress, Military maps of the United States. - North Anna, Va., 1867
Legal authorization for gambling at Virginia horse races has changed over the years. In 1740, the General Assembly clarified that its first law on gambling passed in 1727, based on the "Statute of Anne," did apply to horse racing. However, in 1851 the General Court of Virginia ruled that horseracing was defined in state law as more of a sport than a game, and bets for less than $20 were not prohibited by state anti-gaming laws at that time.5
Two racetracks were built in Alexandria County (now named Arlington County) when it was still part of the District of Columbia. The Alexandria track operated approximately 1760-1810. The Mount Vernon track operated between 1841-1845, until it closed due to poor management.6
the Mount Vernon racetrack operated at Alexandria prior to the Civil War
Source: Library of Congress, Plan of the town of Alexandria, D.C. with the environs: exhibiting the outlet of the Alexandria Canal, the shipping channel, wharves, Hunting Cr. &c. (1845)
In the 1800's, horse tracks did not make their profits simply by taking a small share of every wager. Instead, tracks and gamblers bet against each other. The tracks had a direct interest in which horses won. A dishonest track that "fixed" a race could generate a major profit.
Corruption and Victorian standards of conduct led to a public reaction against gambling (and ultimately led to prohibition of alcohol as well). The General Assembly banned gambling at horse tracks in early 1894, but included a major exemptions for tracks on sites owned by agricultural associations or fairs, and driving clubs or parks. Those organizations were not expected to allow gambling dens for the lower classes.
The gamblers who managed establishments at Jackson City in Alexandria County, on the southern end of Long Bridge, found a way to continue.
One group acquired the charter of the Grange Camp Association that had operated in the 1880's in Fairfax County. They did not use their agricultural association charter to offer any agricultural fairs or for any other benevolent purpose. Instead, they built a new racetrack next to the Long Bridge crossing the Potomac River. With their charter, they were exempt from taxes as well as the ban on betting.
A competing group acquired the charter of the Gentleman's Driving Club in Alexandria County. In 1894 it opened a racetrack named the Gentleman's Driving Park at St. Asaph Junction, near the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria. The track was near the old location of the Mount Vernon track, which had closed in 1845. The grandstand with room for 3,000 people had electric lights, plus running water supplied by a two-mile long pipe connecting to the Alexandria water system. There were 16 round trip trains daily bringing customers from Washington, plus ferries crossing the Potomac River and connecting to the Mount Vernon Electric Railway.
Telegraph lines made it possible for gamblers to bet on races at other tracks in St. Louis, New Orleans, and elsewhere. About 40 bookies stayed busy taking bets, and the St. Asaph Racetrack made profits from its high-tech "poolroom" operations as well as from races at the track.
Governor O'Ferrall reported his frustration to the state legislature in 1895:7
the Alexander Island racetrack opened in 1894, and attracted gamblers from Washington DC as well as Arlington County
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Washington-MD quadrangle (1:62,500 scale) (1900)
The General Assembly tightened the ban on gambling in 1897. That put the Alexander Island racetrack out of business, but by then the competitors had united and focused on St. Asaph's operations. Horses also stopped running at St. Asaph and the grandstand decayed. Betting paused while the racetrack was used as a quartermaster's depot during the Spanish American War, but restarted soon afterwards.
after St. Asaph Racetrack closed, gambling continued thanks to a loophole in state law created by the local State Senator
Source: Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Washington Times (January 13, 1905, p.1)
St. Asaph Racetrack grandstand, abandoned, in 1914
Source: Alexandria Library Special Collections, St. Asaph Racetrack (William Smith Photograph Collection, #551)
The St. Asaph track used a loophole in state law that was created specifically by the local State Senator, George Mushback. Not coincidentally, he benefited personally from the exception. Payoffs to Alexandria deputies working for the sheriff also were essential for perpetuating various forms of shady behavior at St. Asaph.
A "Gentlemen's Driving Club" at the St. Asaph track leased telegraph lines to get results of horse races run elsewhere, and allowed "gentlemen" to place bets on those races outside Virginia. Club operators claimed the money was wired to West Virginia via telegraph and the bets placed there; therefore, the ban on gambling in Virginia was not being violated.
in the 1890's, the St. Asaph track was located next to railroads linking Alexandria with Washington, DC and Leesburg
Source: Library of Congress, Perspective view of northwest Alexandria: showing location with reference to cities of Washington & Alexandria (1890)
Crandal Mackey was elected Commonwealth's Attorney in 1903 for Alexandria County, as the reform candidate who promised to enforce the law. He cleaned out the gambling dens in Rosslyn and Jackson City, but struggled for two years to force even a temporary closure of the bet-by-telegraph operation at the old St. Asaph racetrack.
the crusading Commonwealth's Attorney, Crandal Mackey, struggled to end illegal gambling at St. Asaph's
Source: Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Washington Times (May 22, 1904, p.4)
Corruption in the Alexandria County government was common. The honest Commonwealth's Attorney could not enforce the law effectively, because the county sheriff and his deputies could not be trusted. One adversary was C. C. Carlin, who represented the St. Asaph track and various gambling houses as their lawyer.
In response, local residents near the racetrack arranged to create a new way to enforce the law. They got a charter from the General Assembly in 1908 and created the Town of Potomac. As a separate jurisdiction from Alexandria County, town officials hired their own policemen and finally stopped the gambling.
The Town of Potomac was annexed by the City of Alexandria and disappeared as a separate jurisdiction in 1930. By that time, the buildings at the St. Asaph racetrack and the old gamble-by-telegraph operation were long gone.8
St. Asaph racetrack in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria
Source: Map of Alexandria County, Virginia for the Virginia Title Co. (1900)
The ban on gambling at racetracks did not force closure of racetracks, though it affected the opportunity to make a profit by operating one. In 1908, a new harness racetrack opened in Fairfax County at Burke (where Burke Nursery and Garden Centre was located in 2014, near the intersection of Burke Road and Parakeet Drive). Henry Clay Copperthite, who made a fortune selling pies in Washington, DC, bought the Silas Burke House in 1899 for a summer retreat, as well as farmland in the area to supply his Connecticut Pie Company.
He opened the Copperthite Race Track on July 4, 1908 and maintained it until 1917. The facility was constructed for socializing and entertainment. President William McKinley, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, and other notables kept horses at Copperthite's stables; he had no need to make a profit from gambling at his horse track.9
the old Jackson City racetrack was still a feature on the landscape in 1927, until replaced by Washington Airport
Source: Department of Commerce, Airway Bulletin No. 124 (1927)
In the 1900's, other states that had banned traditional betting at their racetracks began to legalize pari-mutuel betting, where gamblers bet against each other rather than bet against the track. Pari-mutuel betting at a racetrack is comparable to poker players betting against each other, while other table games and slots in a casino involve bets "against the house."
In pari-mutuel betting at a racetrack, people at the racetrack and off-track bettors watching the race at a distance via simulcast television create a pool of bets for each race. Winners collect from the pool, and size of winnings reflect both the odds on the horse and the size of the total pool. Racetracks serve just the middleman, processing bets and taking a percentage of the total pool to fund operations.
Pari-mutuel betting reduces the incentive for tracks to "fix" races. In pari-mutuel betting, the participants in the pool bet against each other. The racetrack gets just a percentage of the total betting pool, in contrast to the St. Asaph's days when the track funded bets and could make a hefty profit by determining winners and losers in a race. (By 2014, 32 states had racetracks that allowed pari-mutuel betting.)10
the Fairfield race track, on land owned by James Talley, reopened in 1832, after being closed for 17 years
Source: Virginia Chronicle, Richmond Whig and Commercial Journal (April 25, 1832)
during the Civil War, Union cartographers mapped the Fairfield race course on the Talley property in Henrico County
Source: US War Department, Atlas to accompany the official records of the Union and Confederate armies, Southeastern Virginia and Fort Monroe Showing the Approaches to Richmond and Petersburg (1862)
the harness race track in Burke (Fairfax County) operated from 1908-1917
Source: Washington Post, "Track Ready For Opening" (June 28, 1908)
In the 1950's, Thoroughbred horsemen started to ask the General Assembly to allow pari-mutuel gambling, but without success. Though betting at a Virginia horse race was not legal for a century between 1897-1997, it still occurred.
Source: Library of Congress, Bookies taking bets at horse races. Warrenton, Virginia (1941)
The Strawberry Races, a steeplechase event, ran at locations near Richmond from 1895-2012. The Camptown Races, named after a minstrel song by Stephen Foster, was a similar event held in Hanover County from 1953-1977. They were venues for much partying and many informal friendly wagers. The Camptown Races ended in 1977 after a jockey injured in 1975 filed a lawsuit, and landowners decided the risk of hosting the charity event was too great. The Strawberry Races stopped after the State Fair of Virginia went bankrupt, though Colonial Downs tried to cater to that market by offering the Dogwood Races in their place.11
Many other steeplechase events, such as the Foxfield Races in Charlottesville, have continued the Virginia tradition of holding outdoor parties where horses may or may not be watched, with many informal wagers on the side - but it was not until a Virginia farm bred the best Thoroughbred racing horse that ever lived that Virginians decided to permit a pari-mutuel racetrack.
horse racing in Virginia is a long-standing tradition
Source: Smithsonian Museum, Peytona and Fashion’s Great Match (1845)
In 1972, a horse bred three years earlier at Meadow Stable in Doswell won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. In 1973, Secretariat - another Meadow Stable horse - won the Triple Crown, including the Preakness. Secretariat ran record times in all three Triple Crown races (though the clock malfunctioned during the Preakness), and drew national attention to the sport and to Meadow Stable's operations in Caroline County. However, throughout his lifetime it was illegal for him to race for money in the state where he was born.
Having a Virginia horse win five out of six Triple Crown events in 1972-73 spurred public interest in Virginia's horse industry. In 1978, the General Assembly finally authorized a statewide referendum to authorize pari-mutuel gambling in Virginia. It was defeated by the voters, and supporters suspected the opposition was funded in part by tracks and horse owners in nearby states who did not want extra competition from Virginia.12
Despite the defeat in 1978, public attitudes towards gambling changed over the next decade. The Virginia Lottery was approved in a 1987 vote, and in 1988 a referendum legalizing a horse track with pari-mutuel betting was approved.
The new state law required that local voters must approve any racetrack in their jurisdiction, in a separate local referendum. The first approval came from New Kent County in October 1989, followed by Prince William County a month later.13
In September, 1990, Loudoun County and four other jurisdictions authorized racetracks, followed by Portsmouth in 1992. The first Virginia races with pari-mutuel betting were in 1991-92 at Morven Park in Leesburg. Posters advertised "You can bet on it!" and betting clerks were brought in from the race track in Charles Town, West Virginia.
Few owners were willing to transport their horses to Leesburg for such a short meet. After two years of racing, Morven Park chose not to seek another license for almost 25 years.14
To incentivize someone to build a racetrack and attract a critical mass of race horses, the 1992 General Assembly authorized up to six Off Track Betting (OTB) parlors or "satellite wagering facilities" around the state. Despite moral concerns about gambling by various interest groups in the state, expanding the number of potential gamblers was viewed as essential to attracting an investor willing to spend $30-50 million to construct a new racetrack. In response to objections to gambling, the 1992 law required local approval for any OTB parlor (as the 1988 law required local approval for building a racetrack).
Six jurisdictions voted in 1992 to approve OTB parlors, including Richmond and Virginia Beach, and multiple investors began to pursue a state license for a racetrack with an unlimited license.
starting in 1998, the Colonial Downs racetrack in New Kent County offered pari-mutuel betting on harness races
Source: Library of Congress, The Celebrated trotting mare Daisydale, by Thornedale (1881)
The Virginia Racing Commission is the state agency that oversees pari-mutuel betting in Virginia, licensing jockeys, determining which drugs may be used by racing horses, and authorizing tracks. In 1994, the state agency considered six proposals. Two investors planned a track southeast of Richmond, while others proposed locations in Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Loudoun County, or Prince William County.
Both locations in Hampton Roads counted on public funding from the Hampton Roads Sports Authority, which agreed to sell bonds to finance track construction. The owners of Churchill Downs - the racetrack that hosts the Kentucky Derby - chose a wheat field in Virginia Beach as their preferred location for building "Princess Anne Downs." The president company president had to confess, after awarding scholarships to local students who won the naming contest, that he had no idea who was Princess Anne. (She was the daughter of James II, queen of England between 1702-1714, and the person for whom Prince Anne County was named, before the county became the City of Virginia Beach.)
The Portsmouth site was advanced by a Virginia-based coalition. Its proposed location required tearing down 469 houses built in World War II, displacing 1,000 residents. The Portsmouth group claimed Churchill Downs would be an absentee landlord, one that only wanted to expand their gambling operating in Kentucky rather than grow the racing industry within Virginia. In a clue about what would come later, Churchill Downs noted that the population of race horses nationwide was shrinking, and expressed concern about the requirement that the Virginia track must offer at least 150 racing days per year within five years of the track's opening.15
Two investors proposed to build a track in Northern Virginia, which had the largest population in the state and therefore the greatest number of potential customers. The owner of the Pimlico and Laurel racetracks in Maryland had focused on putting a racetrack near Richmond. At the last minute before submitting his bid to the Virginia Racing Commission, he switched locations and proposed a $55 million "Patriot Park" in Loudoun County, north of Dulles airport on Waxpool Road near Ashburn.
His was not the only bid for the Northern Virginia market. A Middleburg resident with family ties to the racetrack in Puerto Rico submitted a competing offer for a track in western Prince William County near Haymarket; "Dominion Downs" would cost $45 million.
Both proposals were strongly opposed by conservative, anti-gambling activists. For the Virginia Racing Commission, the key difference between the two Northern Virginia choices was the capability to provide enough horses to keep a track busy for 150 days.
the competition for a Virginia racetrack license in 1994 was as intense as a horse race itself
Source: Library of Congress, Neck and neck to the wire (1881)
The advocate for the Loudoun proposal, Joe DeFrancis, was involved with the Maryland Jockey Club. He worried that a Virginia track would draw business away from his operations, but also realized that he could arrange for Pimlico and Laurel racetracks to close and steer their horses to a Virginia track during its season. De Francis stated bluntly:
Virginia opponents claimed his proposal would make a Virginia track just an adjunct operation to Maryland operations and "create a thoroughbred racing state called 'Marygin.'" Racehorses might not be available in Virginia immediately, but the law provided five years to reach the 150-day limit. That 150-day requirement was an essential tool to spur the horse industry in Virginia, to create and expand breeding stables that would supply Virginia horses for races rather than simply import horses from out-of-state. Since Thoroughbreds race as three-year olds, five years would provide enough time to build stables, train grooms and other farm hands, and breed the large number of horses required for a long racing season.16
Joe DeFrancis's plans for Loudoun County were blocked when voters determined in an August, 1994 referendum to reject any track. Loudoun's population had changed dramatically in four years of rapid suburbanization since the 1990 approval. New residents filled subdivisions primarily on the eastern edge of the county, and the 30% increase in registered voters over four years reflected a shift in priority from agricultural preservation to traffic congestion:17
De Francis did not abandon his efforts; instead, he arranged a partnership with a bidder who had proposed a New Kent County location. The partnership won the Virginia Racing Commission license awarded in 1994 for a pari-mutuel track, because De Francis had the greatest potential to supply enough horses for a season of racing.
The $45 million Colonial Downs racetrack was built on 345 acres in New Kent County halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg on I-64, and operated between 1997-2014. In contrast to modern proposals for using public money to finance sports stadiums, the Colonial Downs was built by private investors - though the county provided water and sewer infrastructure to the location.
Colonial Downs used a dirt track for harness racing in the Fall, plus 20% of Thoroughbred races and even motorcycle events. The unique characteristic of Colonial Downs was its wide turf (Bermuda grass rather than dirt) track:18
Maryland agreed to suspend racing at Pimlico and Laurel during the window when the Colonial Downs racetrack was racing Thoroughbreds, and Virginia's new horseracing industry ended up being dominated by out-of-state operators. Locating a track in New Kent County required Maryland horsemen to travel further than De Francis's preferred location in Loudoun County. The Portsmouth and Virginia Beach locations would have been even further away, requiring vans with horses to navigate through the traffic jams at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. During the hearings at the Virginia Racing Commission, De Francis had described the challenge:19
Diomed was imported from England by John Hoomes of Caroline County, and is a founding sire of Thoroughbreds in the United States
Source: Library of Congress, Diomed (1792)
When it opened, Colonial Downs expected to generate most of its income from Off-Track Betting (OTB) parlors, not from visitors driving from Tidewater and Richmond to bet in person in the middle of rural New Kent County. A county planning commissioner later noted "Prior to Colonial, New Kent County was known as a backyard wood land of Chesapeake Corporation." The Washington Post sportswriter who reviewed the track in 1999 indicated that the rural location was a significant handicap:20
Colonial Downs is so rural, there is no development at the nearest intersection on I-64
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Providence Forge 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (2013)
Back in 1989, advocates for building a track in Prince William County noted that there were 3.8 million people within a 45-minute drive of their Northern Virginia site, compared to only 1.8 million people within that radius of the site in New Kent County.
In 1994, when De Francis shifted his plans from the Richmond area to focus on a track in Loudoun County, he noted that there were "not enough people in the area between Richmond and Virginia Beach to sustain a racetrack." Twenty years later, when the Colonial Downs racetrack appeared ready to close after failing to generate adequate attendance, a Hampton Roads columnist said the "stately track remains a lonely outpost on the interstate between Richmond and Hampton Roads. A rest area. With hay.21
the location of the race track in Princess Anne County (now Virginia Beach), north of the Norfolk and Virginia Beach Railroad, was documented in a 1910 legal case
Source: Library of Virginia, A. Johnson Ackiss for etc. vs. E. H. Morrison (Chancery Records Index Number 1911-015, p.311)
Profits from the small number of races held at Colonial Downs, with a small number of people at the isolated track, were never expected to keep the track profitable. The key to profits would be betting by gamblers who were not physically at the track, wherever it was located in Virginia. That is why the Washington Post sportswriter thought in 1999 that Colonial Downs, while in the boondocks, had potential:22
The six OTB parlors were authorized by the General Assembly in 1992 to create investor interest in building a Virginia racetrack. Horse races run in other states would be simulcast to the OTB parlors. Wagers would be placed on those races as well as on races at the Virginia track, and the extra betting on out-of-state races would increase the "handle." The Virginia track would get a percentage of the greater revenue generated by additional betting, and local jurisdictions where the OTB parlors were located would receive more tax revenue.
The Virginia pari-mutuel betting racetrack license was awarded to Colonial Downs in New Kent County. Getting OTB parlors into operation turned into a major challenge, however. Just as the 1988 legislature had required local approval of a racetrack, the 1992 General Assembly required approval of local jurisdictions before an OTB parlor could operate. Despite extensive lobbying by Colonial Downs, several key communities used their power to block OTB parlors.
The first OTB parlor was opened in the City of Chesapeake in 1996, one year before the Colonial Downs racetrack was finished and held its inaugural events. Though more people lived in Virginia Beach and were potential customers, that city had rescinded its OTB approval after losing the competition for the racetrack itself.23
Off-Track Betting (OTB) parlors are located near the borders with Tennessee and North Carolina, but not Maryland or DC
Source: Colonial Downs OTB Locations
After Chesapeake, one of the first locations for an OTB parlor was near the town of Alberta in Brunswick County, halfway between Petersburg and the North Carolina border. That site was not chosen because the local population would keep the OTB parlor busy; in 2010, the US Census recorded less than 300 people in Alberta and less than 17,000 people in Brunswick County. The location was chosen because it is on Interstate 85. A betting facility there could draw customers from across the North Carolina line, as well as from Petersburg (40 miles away). An assessment of the Virginia horse industry in 2011 noted that 11% of the people attending horse races at Colonial Downs came from out-of-state, but 22% of customers at OTB parlors were from out-of-state.24
the OTB parlor in Alberta (blue X) was placed in rural Southside Virginia, far from where OTB customers live or work... but on I-85, easy for North Carolina residents to access
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Colonial Downs did get approval from both Henrico County and the City of Richmond, and then put a parlor on the border. Tax revenue from the site on West Broad Street was split between the two jurisdictions.
The parlors were located where they could draw customers from Hampton Roads, Richmond, and the states of Tennessee and North Carolina. No satellite racing center ever opened in Northern Virginia, where there was the greatest concentration of potential customers. Colonial Downs failed to consider the challenges of obtaining local support and local land use approval in its effort to provide an off-track betting facility for that market.
Local opposition, some of it concerned about the morality of betting and the potential for creating a focus for crime, blocked every proposal. The closest OTB parlor for customers in Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland was 100 miles south of DC in Glen Allen, just north of Richmond.
In 1992, after the 1988 referendum authorized pari-mutuel betting and before the Virginia Racing Commission awarded a license to any racetrack, Fairfax City and Falls Church blocked any OTB parlors in their jurisdictions. In 1993, Arlington and Alexandria voters also rejected off-track betting. In 1997, Colonial Downs tried to open a betting parlor in Fredericksburg, but that was rejected in a referendum.
After rejection in larger jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, Colonial Downs twice sought approval from Manassas Park. Manassas Park was largely a suburb filled with commuters, and it first incorporated in 1975. The city lacked commercial development, and depended upon real estate property taxes to finance an expensive school system. Colonial Downs predicted that voters who lived in the houses paying high taxes would welcome a new revenue stream from an OTB parlor. Additional funding from gambling in Manassas Park could reduce property taxes or increase services.
Manassas Park rejected an OTB parlor in 1996 by 52-48%, despite endorsement of the proposal by the mayor, police chief and school superintendent. Moral objections to gambling overcame concerns about high local property taxes. In another election in 2004, betting was rejected by 62-35%. In the 2004 election, city officials stayed neutral in public, but the city police were accused of harassing a business owner in Manassas Park Shopping Center in order to break the lease and help Colonial Downs locate a facility there.25
OTB parlors have been located at various addresses - but never in Northern Virginia
Source: "The Economic Impact Of The Horse Industry In Virginia," Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Virginia Pari-mutuel Racing and OTB Facilities (Figure 1.5)
In 1999, in another effort to gain access to the Northern Virginia market, Colonial Downs proposed opening a second track in Prince William County. The company planned to locate a steeplechase track at the site of the Potomac Landfill in Dumfries, at the intersection of I-95 and US 234. The 80-foot high pile of construction and demolition debris (Colonial Downs called it "Mount Dumfries") would be covered by grass. The horses would circle around the mound and, at times, be out of sight of the spectators.
The company claimed that a $20 million steeplechase track would generate up to $1.5 million annually in local tax revenue, generated in a small part by 20 days of steeplechase racing and in a large part by a year-round betting parlor. While a track at Dumfries would have increased betting beyond Colonial Downs' existing Thoroughbred and harness races, a steeplechase track would have competed with traditional point-to-point steeplechase races throughout the Piedmont.
Also in 1999, a competitor proposed a separate oval racetrack in western Prince William. If licensed, the Virginia Turf Club track would have competed directly with the Colonial Downs track. One proposed location was at the intersection of Route 15/Route 29 near the Fauquier County border; another was on Route 15 at Logmill Road (near the Loudoun County border), but the group finally announced it had purchases a site just west of Haymarket.26
in 1999, two locations in western Prince William County were proposed for a horse racetrack, while Colonial Downs proposed a third location (blue X) at Dumfries
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The Town Council of Dumfries rejected any racetrack and gambling parlor, killing the hopes of Colonial Downs to tap into the Northern Virginia market. The Virginia Racing Commission then declined to award a second license for unlimited racing to the Virginia Turf Club, because Colonial Downs had lost $6.5 million since it opened and could not survive competition.
A key opponent of both 1999 track proposals in Prince William County was a local member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Rep. Bob Marshall. He failed to get the Virginia Attorney General to require another local referendum before the Virginia Racing Commission could authorize off-track betting in Prince William County, but was effective in his political efforts to block the tracks, in part by asserting:27
To increase the amount of money available in purses at the Colonial Downs races, and to help the racetrack become profitable, the General Assembly authorized four more additional OTB parlors in 2004. Later that year, Colonial Downs was able to get approval from voters in the Town of Vinton (next to Roanoke, which had rejected gambling in 1997) and from Henry County (adjacent to Martinsville, which also had rejected gambling in 1997).28
Westmoreland County on the Northern Neck approved gambling in 2004 as well. Colonial Beach had been the "Las Vegas of the East" in the 1950's, when slot machines were located on boats carefully parked in the Potomac River on the Maryland side of the boundary but accessed from piers on the Virginia shore. Slots were banned in 1959, but "boats" on the Maryland side of the border (such as The Riverboat, constructed on piers) managed to keep operating.
Hurricane Isabel destroyed The Riverboat in 2003. That briefly eliminated access from Colonial Beach to keno, Maryland Lottery ticket sales, and the off-track betting which had been approved in Maryland in 1992. After the Riverboat was rebuilt after the 2004 vote, Colonial Downs chose not to compete with it and never built a Virginia OTB parlor in Westmoreland County.29
Colonial Downs changed its strategy after expanding to Vinton and Henry County (Martinsville) in 2004. The racetrack expanded its business through "advance deposit wagering" (online betting) via EZ Horseplay using electronic kiosks in bars and restaurants, while competitors offered other online wagering systems. Thanks to online betting, there was no longer an incentive for Colonial Downs to spend time and money to obtain local approval for the remaining two authorized OTB sites. Building and operating two more OTB facilities would be an unnecessary cost.
Colonial Downs used videos to train customers on how to bet via EZ Horseplay kiosks in bars and restaurants
Source: YouTube, Colonial Downs EZ Horseplay Kiosk
Any Virginia resident who opened an EZ Horseplay account, including gamblers in Northern Virginia, could wager at kiosks or via the telephone/internet. EZ Horseplay offered opportunities to bet on races at nearly 100 different Thoroughbred or harness racetracks. Colonial Downs received 5% of the revenue from online bets, another 5% was directed to "representatives of the recognized majority horsemen groups," and 1% went to the Virginia Breeders Fund. In 2012, betting through EZ Horseplay exceeded 40% of the total amount of the "handle" (the amount bet on horseracing in Virginia) while business has declined at OTB parlors.30
The Colonial Downs business strategy from the beginning was to maximize profits rather than revitalize the horse industry in Virginia, and racetrack profits come from gambling rather than racing in New Kent County. Oversight by the Virginia Racing Commission supported the focus on expanding the gambling handle rather than expanding Virginia's horse industry, perhaps reflecting that the state agency was overseen by the Secretary of Commerce and Trade.
The General Assembly transferred the Virginia Racing Commission to the Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry in 2014. The shift was expected to increase pressure on the Virginia Racing Commission to increase horse breeding in Virginia, generating revenue for in-state agricultural operations.
Virginia-based horse owners who originally supported legislation to authorize pari-mutuel betting would benefit from an increase in the number of race days required by the Virginia Racing Commission. Since Thoroughbreds need roughly two weeks of rest between races, more race days would increase the number of horses at the track, which would increase the number of horses bred in Virginia, which would increase the number of employees involved in the horse industry, which would create the economic stimulus as promised in the campaign to legalize pari-mutuel betting.
since online betting (in green) was authorized in 2004, it increased to over 40% of the total in 2012, while betting at Colonial Downs racetrack plus OTB parlors (in red) has declined since 2007
Source: Virginia Racing Commission, 2012 Annual Report
The initial 1988 legislation required a racetrack with an unlimited license (able to offer more than 14 days of racing/year) to offer 150 live racing days annually, after the first five start-up years. That 150-day requirement was expected to revitalize horse breeding in Virginia. The General Assembly did not want to legitimize betting though simulcasting of races held elsewhere, unless there would be some benefits for Virginia. However, the Virginia Racing Commission was granted authority to reduce the number of racing days if that was "in the best interest of the Virginia horse industry."
The initial 1992 General Assembly approval for OTB parlors required that races simulcast from outside the state could not exceed the number of races shown from the Virginia track. Unless the Virginia track raced for 6 months, the OTB parlors would have to close down for substantial parts of the year - so that constraint was loosened by a later General Assembly.32
When Colonial Downs opened, the Thoroughbred race season was only 30 days, and for the next two years it offered only 25-day seasons for Thoroughbreds (plus a harness race season of about the same length, starting in 1998). The ownership of the track was linked with the Maryland Jockey Club, and Colonial Downs offered Thoroughbred racing only when the Maryland tracks at Laurel and Pimlico were closed.33
The peak number of Thoroughbred race days at Colonial Downs was 79 days in 2008, but the number then dropped to an average of 30-45 days spread over eight-nine weeks. The racing season for Thoroughbreds was negotiated between Colonial Downs and the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association (representing Thoroughbred owners, breeders, and trainers) and the Virginia Harness Horse Association (representing Standardbred owners, breeders, and trainers). The Virginia Racing Commission formally approved the season, typically after the contract between track and horse owners had been negotiated.
total pari-mutuel betting in Virginia (at Colonial Downs, OTB parlors, and online) peaked in 2007
Source: Virginia Racing Commission, 2012 Annual Report
Racetracks in the United States are offering fewer races, with the nationwide total dropping 40% between 1989-2013 (from 74,071 in 1989 to 43,139 races in 2013) because demand is dropping. Gamblers are going to casinos or buying lottery tickets, rather than going to racetracks, going to OTB parlors in person, or using advanced deposit wagering options such as EZ Horseplay. Horse racing was exempt from the Federal ban on internet gambling, but starting in 2013 states began to authorize online poker and other forms of competition for horse racing.34
The Charles Town racetrack in West Virginia has been operating since 1933, and offers essentially year-round racing. Between 2002-2010, it averaged 238 live race meetings year - but revenue from that number of races was still not sufficient to keep the track operating profitably. Because interest in horse racing has declined, West Virginia authorized slot machines and table games (blackjack, craps, roulette, and poker) and in 2010 the racetrack morphed into "Hollywood Casino at the Charles Town Races." Maryland followed a similar path, offering a wider range of gambling opportunities at its racetracks to subsidize the horse-related economy in that state.35
One objective in the Virginia Racing Commission's strategic plan was to "increase the number of live race days" to enhance the entire horse industry in the state. However, the decline in races was matched by a decline in Thoroughbreds. Between 1992-2012, births of Thoroughbreds nationwide dropped 39% - but the decline in Virginia-born foals during those 20 years was 72%, from 652 to 184. Virginia's share of the annual Thoroughbred crop in North America dropped from 1.7% to 0.8%.36
Virginia's number of Thoroughbred foals declined 72% between 1992-2012
Source: The Jockey Club, 2014 Virginia Fact Book
The relationship between the amount of prize money offered and the quality of the horses attracted to race is clear: bigger prizes attract higher-quality horses, including horses from out-of-state.
The Virginia Derby race at Colonial Downs offered a $1 million purse in 2006 and 2007. That was high enough to attract some of the three-year old Thoroughbreds that raced earlier in the season in the Triple Crown. The American Graded Stakes Committee ranks the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes as Grade 1 stakes races, based on the quality of the participating horses. The Virginia Derby was rated Grade 3 in 2004 and raised to Grade 2 in 2006, typically attracting good-but-not-the-very-best horses.
In 2008, Colonial Downs reduced the Virginia Derby purse to $750,000. The season was extended from 40 to 45 days that year, and the track shifted money from the Virginia Derby to fund purses for the additional five race days. In response to the lower purse (down to $500,000 in 2013), more Thoroughbred owners decided to keep their horses based in New York and skip the Virginia race season. The tracks in New York offer consistently-higher purses, and the cost of shipping horses to Virginia was not justified by the lower potential winnings at Colonial Downs.37
It is easy to see why reducing the purse at Colonial Downs made it harder to attract out-of-state horses, and the reduced competition provided a greater opportunity for Virginia-based horses to earn prize money. Less obvious was the complicated relationship between the amount of prize money offered at Colonial Downs, the length of the racing season in Virginia, and how the season's length affected the economics of different components of the horse industry in Virginia.
If there were more races at Colonial Downs, there would be more demand for exercise riders, grooms, stable maintenance personnel, and jockeys in Virginia - even if they were maintaining horses imported from New York or elsewhere. Those workers would clearly benefit from a longer race season. (In Virginia, jockeys are independent contractors who sign a contract regarding their pay and working conditions with the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association. Unlike the farm hands, in Virginia jockeys are not employees entitled to workers compensation or unemployment insurance.)38
In theory, Virginia-based horse owners/breeders would benefit like jockeys and others from more races, which require more horses. However, the owners/breeders are partially insulated from the impact of the reduction in race days through the Virginia Breeders Fund, which was created in 1996 after the first OTB parlor opened.
The fund consisted of 1% of the money bet on races at Colonial Downs, plus 1% of bets placed on out-of-state races and simulcast to OTB parlors. The Virginia Racing Commission distributed that revenue to the owners/breeders of Virginia-based horses that earn money at specific races specified by the Virginia Racing Commission. (The fund also compensated owners of horses that earned money in specified races, if the horse was bred from a Virginia stallion; typically this has been less than 10% of the total in the fund.)
If Colonial Downs offered very few races, then jockeys and others involved in doing routine maintenance at a horse farm would have far less business. However, if the funding directed to the Virginia Breeders Fund stayed high due to 1% of the handle on simulcast races in other states, then Virginia-based horse owners/breeders (and their horse trainers) were guaranteed some revenue.
To distribute the funding directed to Virginia-based owners/breeders, the Virginia Racing Commission contracted with the Virginia Thoroughbred Association to register Thoroughbreds born in Virginia, and with the Virginia Harness Race Association to register Standardbreds. Relative interest in the two types of racing is indicated by two statistics:39
- Thoroughbred racing generated roughly 80% of the revenue for the Virginia Breeders Fund
- in 2012, average daily attendance for Thoroughbred races at the Colonial Downs track was over 2,000 people/day, four times the total for harness races (less than 500/day)
In 2013, Colonial Downs sought to minimize the live racing season at the track in New Kent County. The company claimed that operations there were losing money. Hosting fewer races, with higher-quality horses and more betting on each race, would minimize operating costs for the racetrack while maintaining revenue.
The key, from the track's perspective, was to reduce the number of races. If the total purse was distributed among fewer races, then Colonial Downs could offer higher purses for each race, higher purses would attract better horses, better horses would attract more online gamblers from across the United States, and more gambling from those simulcast viewers at other tracks would increase income for Colonial Downs.
The Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association sought a longer season. More races offered more opportunities to win prize money, spread across all the horse owners. A short season with just a few big prizes would encourage out-of-state owners to bring better horses to Colonial Downs, and a higher percentage of the total prize money would end up leaving the state and financing breeding operations elsewhere.
2012 contribution to the Virginia Breeders Fund reflects revenue raised by Thoroughbred vs. Standardbred (harness) racing
Source: Virginia Racing Commission, 2012 Annual Report
The two sides finally agreed to reduce the 2013 season down to 25 racing days, spread over five weeks in June-July. That short season allowed most Thoroughbred owners to race their horses only twice (allowing two weeks to recover), rather than the three times possible in the longer 2012 season.
To compensate for fewer races, Colonial Downs increased the amount of prize money ("purses") for the races by 15%, up to $230,000/day. Many races were maiden races (for horses that have never won) or claiming/allowance races (for lower-quality horses) with a $5,000-$15,000 purse, but the 2013 season also offered 16 stakes races with $1,755,000 in total prize money.40
The impact of the 25-day race season was significant. Attendance at the track, and the amount wagered in 2013, dropped by 25%.41
Virginia horse owners saw the change as benefiting the track and out-of-state horse owners, at the expense of Virginia-based stables. Colonial Downs officials said the reduction in 2013 saved the track $500,000 in operating costs:42
For 2014, negotiations between the horse owners and Colonial Downs failed and no contract was signed on schedule. There was no Thoroughbred race season in 2014, for the first time since 1997. During the 2013-14 negotiations with Thoroughbred owners/trainers, the track sought to retain the unlimited license that allowed year-round betting at OTB facilities but to offer a racing season of less than two weeks.
The mediator in the 2014 negotiations quit after Colonial Downs proposed a 6-day Virginia Derby Festival in September with $500,000/day in purses, but horse owners demanded a 28-day race season spread over eight weeks. Colonial Downs asserted that it had become a third-tier track, unable to attract the best horses from across the United States because prize money for each race was too low. Fewer races would allow bigger purses, attracting better horses. The horse owners claimed Colonial Downs was trying to hold just enough race days to justify keeping the OTB parlors open and allowing online betting:43
The impasse was described succinctly in an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:44
Colonial Downs has a grass track for Thoroughbred races inside the dirt oval for harness races
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Providence Forge 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (2013)
Under Virginia's laws and regulations, satellite betting on Thoroughbred races was authorized only in years in which live Thoroughbred racing occurred in Virginia. When the old contract between the horsemen's association and Colonial Downs expired in February 2014, Colonial Downs had to stop off-track betting on Thoroughbred races.
Colonial Downs closed its OTB parlors in Alberta, Vinton, Henry County, and Scott County to reduce expenses. Those four parlors generated only 25% of Colonial Down's OTB business in 2012. Colonial Downs kept open the parlors with 75% of its OTB business in Hampton, Chesapeake, and West Broad/Glen Allen in Richmond area, where betting continued on harness races viewed on TV screens through simulcasts from other tracks.
75% of Colonial Down's off-track betting occurred at the four OTB parlors located in Hampton Roads/Richmond
Source: Virginia Racing Commission, 2012 Annual Report
The harness racing contract was not involved in the Thoroughbred race season dispute. Betting continued in the still-open OTB parlors on out-of-state harness races, and the Fall 2014 season for harness racing was unaffected by the dispute with the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protection Association. Colonial Downs generated substantially less revenue in 2014 since there was much lower interest and a much lower handle for harness races.45
To get Thoroughbred racing re-started, the Virginia Racing Commission tried to force Colonial Downs to sign a contract with the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. The track filed a lawsuit saying that order was illegal, blocking implementation.
In October 2014, Colonial Downs signed a 10-year contract with a new group claiming to represent horse owners in Virginia, the Old Dominion Thoroughbred Association. Colonial Downs then announced that the track would close permanently if the Virginia Racing Commission rejected the contract and required reaching a deal with the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. That group claimed the contract was not legitimate because the Old Dominion Thoroughbred Association was a "sham organization" with no members in Virginia, and the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association threatened its own lawsuit if the Virginia Racing Commission allowed the track to deal with the new group.46
When the track owner, Jeffrey Jacobs, realized that the Virginia Racing Commission would reject the plan to create a new Thoroughbred association, he relinquished the unlimited pari-mutuel betting license and announced Colonial Downs would close permanently on November 1, 2014.
The three OTB parlors in Richmond, Hampton, and Chesapeake remained open, taking online bets through the EZ Horseplay advance deposit wagering system but no longer accepting cash bets placed in person at the teller's window. Colonial Downs had a separate account-wagering license from the Virginia Racing Commission, allowing those OTB parlors to stay in business and for the company to continue accepting bets at EZ Horseplay kiosks in 100 restaurants, bars and bowling alleys.47
advance deposit wagering customers could bet at EZ Horseplay kiosks in Moose and Elk lodges, billiard parlors, gas stations, grocery stores, sports pubs - minimizing the need for an OTB parlor in Northern Virginia
Source: Colonial Downs, EZ Horseplay Kiosk Locations (on February 11, 2015)
The New Kent facility had been used for motorcross races, music festivals, and fairs, to generate revenue from activities other than horse racing. When he relinquished the license, Jacobs noted that big-purse racing was still possible if the state would direct more revenue to the track from non-racing activities.
Nearby states with pari-mutuel tracks subsidized their track's purses with profits from casino gambling. Colonial Downs was part of a private corporation owned by Jacobs focused on gaming, with casinos in Colorado and Nevada, but he recognized that getting Virginia to authorize casino gambling to subsidize horseracing purses was a 15-1 long shot:48
Colonial Downs failed to get approval for a new horseman's association and chose instead to shut down after the Fall, 2014 harness racing season
Source: Colonial Downs, Letter from Colonial Downs' President Ian Stewart to VHBPA President David Ross (April 8, 2014)
Colonial Downs advertised harness racing and events other than horse races in 2014
Source: Colonial Downs
In February 2015, the owners of the track and the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association negotiated a truce. The Majority Leader in the State Senate represented the district in which the track was located, and he pressured the two sides to reach an agreement. New Kent County estimated that it lost as much as $400,000 in taxes due to the 2014 shutdown of Thoroughbred racing.
Under the deal, Colonial Downs would no longer receive its 5% of the online betting handle, which would be nearly $5 million/year if total online betting in Virginia met estimates of $94 million annually. Instead, that funding would be redirected to a new nonprofit organization, chosen by the Virginia Racing Commission, to promote various forms of horse racing - steeplechase, harness, and Thoroughbred - in Virginia. The expectation was that the Virginia Equine Alliance would serve that role, since it was created by the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, Virginia Gold Cup Association, Virginia Thoroughbred Association, and the Virginia Harness Horse Association.
Even if racing was not re-started at the track, the agreement committed to pay New Kent County a share of revenue from the bets placed at EZ-Play kiosks and OTB facilities for five years. The county supervisors amended their conditional-use permit for the track, authorizing special events unrelated to horse racing (such as festivals and music concerts) even though the track no longer held a license from the Virginia Racing Commission.49
Colonial Downs entrance
grandstand (trackside view)
trotters are Standardbred horses
2-wheeled sulky at harness race
By April 2015, negotiations for Colonial Downs to lease its track to a different operator had failed. The company laid off its remaining employees and closed both the OTB parlors and the 75 EZ-Play kiosks. It claimed that the shutdown in 2014 had resulted in a $3-4 million loss, and closed all operations to avoid the anticipated equivalent losses in 2015.
A Colonial Downs official accused the General Assembly and the Virginia Racing Commission of working with the horse owners, organized as the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (VHBPA), to shift racing to Northern Virginia:50
"Tommy" Norment Jr. represented Senate District 3 in the 2015 General Assembly, and as Majority Leader had influence to negotiate a deal to relicense the Colonial Downs track (red X) while the legislature was in session
Source: Virginia Division of Legislative Services, Current District Maps
Though Colonial Downs was the only track that offered pari-mutuel betting in Virginia year-round at OTB parlors, Virginia law already authorized the Virginia Racing Commission to issue a limited license to a non-profit organization for up to 14 days of gambling at other tracks. Legal betting on horse races had occurred at Oak Ridge Estates and Morven Park before Colonial Downs opened, and those venues became the obvious alternatives once Colonial Downs closed in 2014.
harness racing at Colonial Downs was unaffected by the 2014 license dispute, but after the 2014 races it too became just a memory
After the negotiations between the Colonial Downs track and the VHBPA collapsed in 2015, the governor and the General Assembly agreed to new legislation that authorized 10 off-track gambling parlors that would not be controlled by Colonial Downs. Opening the OTB parlors would re-start the flow of gambling revenue to the horse industry, and help subsidize races at sites other than Colonial Downs.51
In October 2015, after closure of Colonial Downs, the Virginia Equine Alliance arranged for four days of harness races with pari-mutuel betting at Oak Ridge Estates. The Virginia Racing Commission has issued a limited license for three weekends of harness races there in 2001. That site suffered from the same handicaps as Morven Park, which had offered Virginia's first licensed pari-mutuel betting in 1991-92. Oak Ridge Estates was too far away, and the customer base was too small. Not enough Standardbred horse owners were willing to travel to a short meet in Nelson County.
Oak Ridge Estates attracted more interest in 2005, when it announced plans to apply for an unlimited pari-mutuel license. The plan was to offer steeplechase races prior to the start of the Colonial Downs Thoroughbred races in June, but the proposal was dropped. Another decade passed before harness racing, with legal betting, returned to Nelson County in 2015.52
While Colonial Downs was still operating, one county fair continued to offer harness racing. Racing has been a tradition at the Shenandoah County Fair since 1917; the $1,000 purses attract horses from as far away as New York and South Carolina. A Wine and Trotter festival started in 2013 to offer an opportunity for racing in the Spring. Until 2016, the races during the Shenandoah County Fair and the Wine and Trotter festival did not offer legal pari-mutuel betting.53
Though Colonial Downs had an exclusive license to offer year-round racing with legalized betting, it was still threatened by potential competition. A developer in Stafford County had drafted another proposal in 2002 to build a second racetrack and get a second license to offer year-round racing with legalized betting, but that proposal never resulted in a formal request for approval by the Virginia Racing Commission.
No track in Virginia was ever been awarded a second unlimited license. Colonial Downs retained its monopoly on OTB facilities between 1996-2014, because the state feared competition would undercut the economic viability of the track in New Kent County.54
In 2013, the Virginia Racing Commission authorized short-term betting at the long-running Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase. That event has been held in Fauquier County since 1922. After two years of racing initially at the Oakwood estate, the Gold Cup was moved to Broadview Farm. It was run there until suburban sprawl encroached.
Starting in 1985, the race has been held at Great Meadow. That site is in northern Fauquier County near I-66, on a parcel that was once planned to be developed for housing.55
the Gold Cup steeplechase race in Fauquier County dates back to 1922, and got a limited license to offer pari-mutuel betting starting in 2013
Source: Library of Congress, Looking at the gold cup. Horse races at Warrenton, Virginia (1941)
The May, 2013 Gold Cup's wagering was processed in tents with betting machines, using staff brought in from Lexington, Kentucky. The trained clerks were available because the Kentucky Derby was held on the same day in Louisville, Kentucky. A race in nearby Lexington could not compete with that event, but the clerks could find work at the Gold Cup in Fauquier County.
To minimize the time waiting in line for the October, 2013 meet, the Gold Cup used online betting via smart phones. To make that possible, $80,000 was invested to expand the Wi-Fi capabilities at the track.56
the Great Meadow steeplechase racetrack (home of the Gold Cup) is near I-66 and convenient for the Northern Virginia population, while the Colonial Downs thoroughbred/harness racetrack was located on I-64 to attract customers from Richmond/Hampton Roads
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
After Colonial Downs closed in 2014, owners of Virginia Thoroughbreds raced their horses in Maryland and other states. In 2015, the Virginia Racing Commission authorized Laurel Race Track in Maryland to host officially three "graded" Thoroughbred races that had previously been held at Colonial Downs - the Virginia Derby, Colonial Turf Cup, and Virginia Oaks.
The Virginia Equine Alliance endorsed the change, and the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association committed $800,000 in total purse money. However, Colonial Downs objected to the transfer of races to Maryland. The track claimed it had invested in promoting those races, and had intellectual property rights for their names.
Two Grade II races, the Virginia Derby and the Colonial Turf Cup, were renamed the Commonwealth Derby and the Commonwealth Turf Cup. The Grade III Virginia Oaks race was renamed the Commonwealth Oaks. (Top-graded races, with the best Thoroughbreds racing for the best money, are classified as Grade I.)
Horse races have reputations, like horses, trainers, owners, and race tracks. The American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association grades races, assigns grades based on the amount money awarded to the winners (purse value) and other criteria. Races of a similar grade attract horses of similar talent, creating a competitive setting that spurs betting and generates income for the industry.
Races must be run for at least two years under similar conditions to earn a grade. Failure to host a race for two years results in the grade being withdrawn. The Virginia Racing Commission, with funding from the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, preserved the status of three Thoroughbred races by holding them in Maryland.
The Virginia-themed Commonwealth Derby, Commonwealth Turf Cup, and Commonwealth Oaks races have been held at Laurel Park since their inaugural runs in 2015. The Commonwealth Turf Cup was renamed the Baltimore/Washington International Turf Cup in 2017, when all three races were run on "Commonwealth Day" - in Maryland. After the closure of Colonial Downs, Maryland racing expanded. The primary role of the horse industry in Virginia shifted to breeding and training, rather than racing within the state.
The state racing agency and the Virginia horsemen chose to abandon the All Along Stakes and found no site for it in 2015. That Grade III race had been run since 1998 until Colonial Downs closed. To regain a grade in the future would require two years of offering that race without a grade, making it harder to attract horses, before asking the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association to classify the All Along Stakes again.
Instead, Laurel renamed the Lady Baltimore States as the All Along Stakes race starting in 2017. It was not run on Commonwealth Day. The race once run at Colonial Downs was listed on Laurel's card for Maryland Million Day, "Maryland's Day at the Races," three weeks later.57
in 2015, three of Virginia's Thoroughbred races moved to Laurel Race Track in Maryland in order to maintain their graded status, before shifting to Morven Park in 2016
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
After Colonial Downs finally closed, the track owner still sought to establish the Old Dominion Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association as an alternative to the Virginia Equine Alliance. The track requested authorization from the Virginia Racing Commission to hold one day of Thoroughbred racing after Thanksgiving in 2015, and 20 days in 2016. It offered a $2,000 incentive for horse owners to join the Old Dominion Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association sponsored by Colonial Downs, in hopes of undercutting the Virginia Equine Alliance.
The application for one day of racing after Thanksgiving in 2015 also blocked the Virginia Racing Commission from granting authorization to the Virginia Equine Alliance to open its own off-track betting facilities.
That maneuver by Colonial Downs put financial pressure on the horsemen's association in 2015. Under the regulations of the state commission, the alliance would be allowed to keep 4% of bets made online to finance purses for races and to cover operational costs. That funding had gone to Colonial Downs, until the track stopped offering Thoroughbred races.58
Colonial Downs then filed suit in Federal court claiming that the Virginia Racing Commission's recognition of the Virginia Equine Alliance as the "majority horsemen’s group" violated the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978.
Once the suit was filed, the track abandoned its proposal to offer one day of racing after Thanksgiving, 2015. Instead, it applied to the Virginia Racing Commission for a license to run four days of Thoroughbred races in the summer of 2016, while postponing plans to offer 20 days of racing until 2017.
The application for 2016 races included working through the track's Old Dominion Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, not the state-recognized Virginia Equine Alliance, to hold the Virginia Derby and the Colonial Turf Cup. The Virginia Racing Commission quickly rejected that proposal. The state agency insisted that Virginia racing requires relying upon just one horsemen's association, and that the group sponsored by Colonial Downs did not represent the Thoroughbred community in Virginia.
The dispute between Colonial Downs, horse owners, and state officials involved strong personality disagreements and also substantial financial assets. Colonial Downs claims it has invested $60 million to build the track in New Kent County, plus another $8 million to build the OTB parlors. Without a horseracing license, those facilities were closed and generated almost no revenue for the private corporation. The six buildings that housed the former OTB parlors were put up for sale by Colonial Downs in January, 2016, a clear acknowledgement that the racetrack would not be re-opened.
After rejection of the application to hold races in 2016, a representative of Colonial Downs indicated the site of the racetrack in New Kent County held "significant promise as a golf course development." The governor's response was not to cater to Colonial Downs, but to endorse moving the authorized racetrack to the northern part of the state:59
Legal pari-mutuel betting at horse races in Virginia did not stop with the closure of Colonial Downs. In 2015, the Virginia Harness Horse Association and the Virginia Racing Commission arranged for a harness race meet with pari-mutuel betting at Oak Ridge Estates in Nelson County.
The Virginia Equine Alliance and the Virginia Racing Commission also arranged for Thoroughbred races in 2015 at Great Meadow, after considering the State Fair site in Caroline County. Great Meadow was established as a steeplechase track, but it had a grass surface for flat turf races up to one and a half miles in length.60
For 2016, the Virginia Equine Alliance arranged for Thoroughbreds to race again in two events at Great Meadow in The Plains. The Virginia Racing Commission continued to license pari-mutuel betting at the Virginia Gold Cup and the International Gold Cup, and Virginia Thoroughbreds had dedicated race days in Maryland.
"Mid Atlantic Day" at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore featured Virginia-bred horses racing in the morning and Maryland-bred horses in the afternoon. Laurel Park held a separate "Virginia-Bred Day" race, which it had initiated in 2014.
Laurel Race Course advertises racing days based on horses bred in Virginia, so Maryland received most gambling revenues from Virginia Thoroughbreds
Source: Virginia Thoroughbred Association
The governor's comments to "look at it in Middleburg" were based on plans to build a Thoroughbred racing track at Morven Park near Leesburg, a 1,000-acre site with the historic home of former governor Westmoreland Davis. The Virginia Equine Alliance made a five-year commitment. Morven Park agreed to convert its turf steepletrack course, unused for steepletrack racing since 2010, into a flat, one-mile turf course for Thoroughbreds. The plan was to offer "country racing – racing on grass" without a large grandstand.
Colonial Downs had used a dirt track for its major Thoroughbred races. The upgrade to a grass track was expected to help Morven Park compete for the right to host the World Equestrian Games in 2022 or 2026.
The plans for a Northern Virginia racetrack with pari-mutuel betting were abandoned in 2017, in a mutual agreement between the Virginia Equine Association and Morven Park. Costs would have been too high to flatten the steeplechase course and make it suitable for Thoroughbred racing, there were concerns about adequate water supply and runoff pollution in the karst topography, and there were constraints on construction due to potential sinkholes in the limestone bedrock.
In addition, Thoroughbred races at Morven Park could have detracted from other programming at the Morven Park Equestrian Center including horse shows, activities of Loudoun Therapeutic Riding, polo, and training for the Olympics. Instead of converting the steeplechase track into a flat Thoroughbred racetrack, Morven Park chose to support a restart of the steeplechase races in 2018.61
The racetrack at Colonial Downs had capacity for 35,000 visitors. A report on the decision in The Racing Biz included comments from the chair of the Virginia Equine Association that highlighted the difficulty in financing an alternative track to Colonial Downs:62
the Virginia Equine Alliance chose Morven Park in 2015 to replace Colonial Downs as the site for a two-week Thoroughbred racing meet, but dropped that plan two years later
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
After dropping plans for Morven Park, Powhatan Farm in King George County was considered for the site of a new Thoroughbred racetrack. The 1,000-acre farm has been developed for breeding and training horses since 1952. The Virginia Equine Alliance also searched for a buyer willing to purchase and re-open Colonial Downs in New Kent County.63
a racetrack at Powhatan Farm, east of Fredericksburg, would be within a 30-minute drive from I-95
Source: Google Maps
The Virginia Racing Commission re-started off-track betting in 2016, when it authorized the Virginia Equine Alliance to open an OTB parlor in the Richmond area. The license was granted for a sports bar in Henrico County on Broad Street (Route 250), six miles west of the previous OTB parlor operated by Colonial Downs. Voters in both Richmond and Henrico previously had approved betting on horse races, and the former Colonial Downs facility was located just inside the Richmond boundary line.64
the OTB parlor operated by Colonial Downs at 4700 West Broad Street in Richmond was next to the city-county boundary, but voters in both Henrico County and the City of Richmond had approved pari-mutuel betting
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Pari-mutuel wagering on harness races in Virginia moved in 2016 to Shenandoah County Fairgrounds. The Virginia Equine Alliance and the Virginia Harness Horseman's Association signed a 20-year contract to hold the Shenandoah Downs meet, to be held each Fall on weekends after the fair concludes.
The Virginia Equine Alliance invested $800,000 to upgrade the half-mile track for harness racing. The first races demonstrated the modified track offered more visibility for customers to see the horses run, in comparison to Colonial Downs where "spectators watched the races through binoculars or a video screen." The larger purses, based on revenue from pari-mutuel bets, were intended to attract higher-quality Standardbred horses to the Shenandoah Downs meet after the fair.65
The Virginia Equine Alliance chose the Shenandoah County site in part because the fairgrounds had fewer scheduling conflicts than Oak Ridge Estates. The fairgrounds is physically closer to the population centers in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia, so it also had greater potential to attract bettors in person.
In 2017, the second season of pari-mutuel harness racing at the track, was the 100th anniversary of horse racing at Woodstock. It was also the first year bettors could go to an Off-Track Betting parlor in Virginia to lay a wager on the harness races at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds.66
the Shenandoah Valley Fairgrounds site is next to I-81's Exit 283, providing easy access for those living in the DC-area who want to gamble on harness races
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
After rejected the proposal of Colonial Downs to establish a separate horsemen's association and return to racing, the Virginia Racing Commission granted the Virginia Equine Alliance authority to open Off-Track Betting parlors. The first two were located in Richmond at Ponies & Pints in Shockoe Slip (downtown Richmond), and at the Breakers Sports Grille in the West End.
Initial plans were to add the next parlor in Hampton, but two other locations were approved first.
In 2017, an Off-Track Betting parlor opened at Buckets Bar and Grill in Great Bridge. Residents in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Suffolk could drive there easily (except at rush hour), while vacationers needing a break on their trip to or back home from the Outer Banks could choose to stop there as well.67
Buckets Bar and Grill in Great Bridge could attract customers from South Hampton Roads, plus travelers going to and from the Outer Banks
Source: Google Maps
Also in 2017, Virginia Racing Commission and Henry County officials authorized Off-Track Betting at a hotel in Collinsville, seven miles north of the site of the parlor that opened in 2005 and closed in 2014.
the Virginia Equine Alliance highlighted the opening of an Off-Track Betting facilty in Collinsville
Source: Virginia Equine Alliance, Virginia Horse Racing
Perhaps more importantly, the site was less than a 30-minute drive from the North Carolina border on the main road between Greensboro and Roanoke (US 220). Since North Carolina does not permit Off-Track Betting, a parlor near the border could draw customers across the state line.68
the second Off-Track Betting parlor in Henry County, at the Dutch Inn, was only 12 minutes further away from the North Carolina border compared to the parlor that closed in 2014
Source: Google Maps
In 2018, Revolutionary Racing purchased the Colonial Downs racetrack from Jacobs Entertainment for over $20 million. To sweeten the benefits of the potential deal, Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed in his last budget to authorize slots-like gaming machines at the track by redefining "simulcast horse racing."
The "historical horse race terminals" would enable gamblers to bet on horse races completed in the past. Some terminals incorporate digitized videos of 60,000 previous races, but gamblers do not know the exact race on which they are betting. They get enough information about the horses to choose the top three finishers. Only after making the bet does a gambler get to see who is racing, then watch a clip or all of the race.
Because the payout based on pari-mutuel odds, the General Assembly does not consider it to be casino gambling. As described in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:69
The head of the Equine Alliance supported the proposal, saying:
The General Assembly ended up debating the bill separately from the budget. That process made even more clear that a large majority of the legislators approved adding slots-like betting machines to the Colonial Downs site in 2018, facilitating the sale to Revolutionary Racing. The vote in the House of Delegates on HB 1609 was 71-29. The key vote in the State Senate was 23-17, blocking a one-year delay, before final approval by a 31-9 vote.
Advocates for the horse-raising industry in Virginia, together with lobbyists for Revolutionary Racing, made the case successfully that:
Opponents to what they called a "massive gambling expansion" lost the argument. The General Assembly has committed to subsidizing horse farming in Virginia through gambling, including legalizing historical horse racing terminals, satellite wagering facilities (Off-Track Betting parlors), advanced deposit wagering (betting from home over the internet), and live races at Colonial Downs.
Legislators concurred that expanding gambling options was essential to get Colonial Downs restarted. Otherwise, Virginia's horse-raising businesses would relocate near the horse-racing tracks in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Maryland. After Colonial Downs closed in 2014, Maryland added 30 days to its racing calendar. That filled the summertime space when horse operations in Maryland used to migrate to New Kent County.
the logo for New Kent County includes a horse head, in recognition of the Colonial Down track
Source: New Kent County
Revolutionary Racing anticipated it would invest $50 million to restart live horse racing at Colonial Downs and open "Rosie’s gaming emporium" there. Total revenue from gambling would, after five years, was projected to exceed $200 million. Only $7 million would come from 25 Thoroughbred race days at Colonial Downs, plus an additional $1-2 million from three days of steeplechase racing.
the General Assembly approved historical horse race terminals in 2018, so that revenue would incentivize Revolutionary Racing to re-open Colonial Downs
Source: Revolutionary Racing, The Economic Impact of Colonial Downs in Virginia (p.5)
Off-Track Betting terminals would generate $30 million and advanced deposit wagering would generate $5 million. Historical horse race terminals, in a facility operating 24 hours/day and 7 days/week at Colonial Downs and in Off-Track Betting parlors, could generate $160 million in total revenue. That included $26 million in annual tax revenue, plus $18 million for the horse industry. The $18 million would be distributed according to a formula in state law among the Virginia Breeders Fund, Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, Virginia Horse Center Foundation, Virginia Horse Industry Board, and Virginia Thoroughbred Association " to sustain and promote the growth of a native industry."
Gamblers were expected to bet $12,000/day on each machine, with 96% of the bets returned as winnings. Revolutionary Racing will keep 2.75%.
The 1.25% state share was projected to generate $150 daily per machine. The state will keep 0.75% of its 1.25% tax.
The other 0.5% of the state's share will go to New Kent County for machines at Colonial Downs. For machines at Off-Track Betting facilities, the local share will be divided. New Kent County will get 0.25%, and the other 0.25% will go to the jurisdiction in which the Off-Track Betting facility is located. As many as 1,400 jobs could be associated with the re-opened horse track.
The state will split its 0.75% share with the Virginia Equine Alliance. For the first $60 million in revenue, the state will transfer 6% to the group. Above $60 million, the Virginia Equine Alliance will get 7% of the state's share.
When Revolutionary Racing entered the market, eight localities had already authorized Off Track Betting parlors: the cities of Richmond, Hampton and Chesapeake; the counties of Henrico, Henry, Brunswick and Scott; and the town of Vinton in Roanoke County. The four parlors operated in sports bars - Breakers Sports Grille in Henrico County east of Short Pump, Ponies & Pints in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom, Buckets Bar and Grill in Chesapeake, and The Windmill at the Dutch Inn motel in Henry County.
Revolutionary Racing agreed to purchase those facilities from the Virginia Equine Alliance for $10 million. The new racetrack owner projected that it would generate 80% of its anticipated $200 million in annual revenue by 2022 from historical horse racing terminals. That could affect the atmosphere at the sports bars that host the Off Track Betting parlors. As one observer noted:70
The Virginia Racing Commission proposed in its initial regulations to authorize up to 3,000 total machines, far more than Kentucky has permitted (1,755 historical horse racing machines).
A total of 700 machines would be allowed at the track in New Kent County and at OTB parlors in jurisdictions with at least 120,000 people, if at least 30 days of live racing were offered at Colonial Downs each year. If the track offered only the minimum of 14 days of live racing, then the cap would be 245 machines. The Virginia Racing Commission built a clear incentive into its proposed regulations, by authorizing more profit-generating historical horse racing terminals in exchange for more days of live racing. Revolutionary Racing may not make a profit from live racing at Colonial Downs, but the Virginia horse industry would benefit.
Like Colonial Downs, the existing OTB parlors in Richmond, Henrico County, and Chesapeake could end up with 700 terminals. Only 150 machines would be authorized at the parlor in Henry County, based on a cap proposed for jurisdictions with less than 60,000 people.
Revolutionary Racing is allowed to open a total of 10 OTB parlors. Its constraint had been obtaining voter approval, and small localities such as Scott County and the Town of Vinton had approved betting. The Virginia Racing Commission planned to incentivize Revolutionary Racing to locate more parlors in larger jurisdictions. The private company could make more profits by instally more machines in just a few locations, but expansion would require more voter approval campaigns.
After the intial regulations were adopted by the Virginia Racing Commission, Revolutionary Racing planned to open Rosie’s betting parlors with historical horse racing machines at the track in New Kent, Richmond, Chesapeake, Hampton, and Vinton.
Martinsville was not on the initial list. An earlier editorial in the Daily Press, urging restraint in the expansion of gambling, had noted how the local ecnomic potential drove smaller communities to ask for more machines beyond the limit of 150:71
in 2018, eight localities had authorized Off Track Betting parlors but only four (blue) had one in operation
Source: Wikipedia, Map of Virginia's counties and cities
To support a 2019 re-opening, the Virginia Racing Commission chose not to run two graded stakes races in Maryland in 2018. Funding for the purses of the Commonwealth Derby for three-year-olds and the Commonwealth Oaks for three-year-old fillies was retained, and could be used to increase the stakes for 2019 races.72
The Equine Alliance supported expanding gambling options, anticipating that the new historical horse race terminal revenue would be directed to the horse industry to stimulate breeding, training, and other operations on Virginia farms. The president of the Equine Alliance noted bluntly:73
At the same time the General Assembly authorized historical horse racing terminals, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control approved the use of new video gaming machines in establishments with a liquor license.
The state agency has determined that so long as a game is based predominantly on skill and not chance, it is legal. Machines that require a customer to use hand-eye coordination or memory in order to win a prize are not gambling machines.74
"Skills-based" machines in bars may divert a few gamblers away from a trip to Colonial Downs, and the Pamunkey tribe could emerge as a major competitor. In April, 2018, the Pamunkey revealed that an Illinois-based video gaming company had purchased 610 acres on I-64, ten miles west of Colonial Downs at the Route 205 interchange. It could be developed into a $700 million casino and resort, employing as many as 4,000 people.75
Federal recognition of the Pamunkey tribe in 2015, through the administrative process of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, created the potential for the tribe to develop gaming operations. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act defines the procedures required for creating a compact with the state, which would be required to offer games of chance (such as slot machines) in addition to games of skill (such as betting on a historical horse race). The potential economic benefits for New Kent County and the state altered expectations that Virginia would never authorize casino gambling.
two gambling centers have been proposed on I-64 east of Richmond, one by the Pamunkey tribe and one at the former Colonial Downs racetrack
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Virginia horses that won the Kentucky Derby76
1928: Reigh Count - born at Court Manor (Rockingham County)
1973: Secretariat - born at The Meadow (Caroline County)
1981: Pleasant Colony - born at Buckland Farm (Prince William County)
1993: Sea Hero - born at Rokeby Stables (Loudoun County)
Virginia horse races evolved from best-of-three heats, with each race up to four miles, to shorter distances
Source: Library of Congress, Three men on horseback racing (1885)
tote board at Colonial Downs
on-site attendance is thin...
betting on simulcast harness races
bets (not attendance) create profits
track is prepped after each race
watering track requires staff
track could become a subdivision...
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(last checked April 5, 2014)
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61. "Virginia Equine Alliance Announces Immediate & Long Term Plans for Live Racing," Virginia Equine Alliance, March 22, 2016, http://www.virginiahorseracing.com/2016/03/22/virginia-equine-alliance-announces-immediate-long-term-plans-for-live-racing/; "Racing, betting and art: A renaissance at Morven Park in Leesburg," Loudon Times-Mirror, April 29, 2016, http://www.loudountimes.com/news/article/racing_betting_and_art_a_renaissance_at_morven_park_in_leesburg432; "$4.4 Million Morven Park Renovation Underway," The Loudoun Tribune, August 1, 2017, https://www.loudountribune.com/morven-park-equestrian-4-4-million-renovation/ (last checked December 24, 2017)
62. "With Effort To Build Track At Morven Park Over, Virginia Racing Interests Regroup," The Racing Biz, March 16, 2017 , https://www.theracingbiz.com/2017/03/16/effort-build-track-morven-park-virginia-racing-interests-regroup/; "Colonial Downs renovations ongoing; owners hope to open in March," Inside Business – the Hampton Roads Business Journal, September 11, 2018, https://pilotonline.com/inside-business/news/tourism-and-hospitality/article_e689a5de-b5e8-11e8-a5ce-c3df2161ef50.html (last checked September 12, 2018)
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entrance to Colonial Downs grandstand
in harness races, Standardbred horses pull a rider in a 2-wheel sulky at 30 miles/hour
inside the dirt track for harness races, Colonial Downs has a separate grass track for Thoroughbred racing (marked by yellow lines)
grandstand offers streaming video for watching and betting on races at other tracks
the Great Meadow racetrack near I-66 in northern Fauquier County hosts the Gold Cup steeplechase races
Source: US Geological Survey, Marshall 7.5x7.5 topographic map
steeplechase races around a course include jumping obstacles, imitating what horses must cross in open-field racing
Source: Library of Congress, Horse races, Warrenton, Virginia (1941)
the local newspaper, the Alexander Gazette and Virginia Advertiser, defended gambling at the Alexander Island racetrack
Source: Virginia Chronicle, Alexandria Gazette, Volume 96, Number 129, 30 May 1895 (p.2)