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Friday, March 1, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Virginians At Odds Over Thoroughbred Racing

(CN) - Colonial Downs is asking a federal judge to decide who calls the shots when it comes to thoroughbred horseracing in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

For 20 years ending in 2014, Colonial Downs, which is located in New Kent County, Va., held a state license to present an unlimited number of horse races with pari-mutuel wagering. The facility includes two race courses consisting of a one-and-one-quarter mile dirt track and a 180-foot wide, one-mile turf course.

The track's grandstand complex contains covered seating for 4,000 patrons, and its backstretch area includes horse training facilities as well as barns boasting over 1,000 permanent horse stalls.

But in a complaint filed in the Richmond Federal Court on Nov. 13, Colonial Downs claims an amendment to the state's horseracing statute earlier this year has muddied the future of racing in the state.

Lawmakers approved the amendment, which allows the Virginia Racing Commission to control which horseman's group can conduct thoroughbred racing at the track, amid an impasse last winter between Colonial Downs and the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

The disagreement, which raged for nearly two years, involved a number of issues, not least of which was the number of days that the track would be open for racing.

The stalemate caused the closure of the track in 2014, its forfeiture of its unlimited license to conduct races, and the shuttering of seven off-track betting facilities.

The track had hoped to host at least one day of racing this year, on Nov. 30, but it pulled its application last week after ongoing negotiations with the horsemen's association broke down once again.

Colonial Downs contends a 1978 federal law -- the Interstate Horseracing Act -- trumps the state statute, and that the conflict between the two laws is preventing it from getting back in business.

"The Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 provides the exclusive mechanism for determining the horsemen's group with which a racing association must contract and obtain consent to engage in interstate waging," the complaint says. "The recently amended Virginia Racing Act, however, purports to require an alternative and conflicting Virginia process that only allows host racing associations to contract with certain horsemen's groups "recognized" by the Virginia Racing Commission."

The track says it has invested $60 million in its facilities and expended considerable sums on contracts, licenses and other purchases.

"By preventing Colonial Downs from Contracting with a horsemen's group that shares its goals and business objectives, the Virginia Racing Act and Defendants are devaluing Colonial Downs' investments," the complaint says.

The track is currently seeking a limited license to conduct races and a contract with another group, the Old Dominion Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association that would allow for four race days during the summer of 2016.

It also filed an application to reopen two satellite wagering facilities: one in Richmond, and one in Hampton.

The racing commission has yet to act on those applications.

Colonial Downs is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent the state from enforcing the new state law.

It is represented by James Weinberg of Hirshler Fleischer in Richmond.

Neither the racing association or the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry immediately responded to a request for comment.

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