13313_495x278Virginia has long been a cradle of racing.  Prior to the Civil War, a number of racetracks operated in the Old Dominion, and, while the war decimated the equine population, the industry made a steady comeback over the next century plus.

There were numerous thoroughbred farms located around the state with concentrations in Northern Virginia, Charlottesville and around Richmond.  Breeders produced commercial yearlings or raced in other jurisdictions.  Owners and trainers either operated from their Virginia farms or from satellite locations that focused on racing in the Mid-Atlantic.  Bigger outfits and farms raced in New York and Florida.  People shipped their horses to the sales and to the racetrack, as Charles Town, Penn National, Laurel, Pimlico, Timonium and even Delaware Park were considered reasonable commutes (at the time.)

This was long before the “Age of Convenience” dawned on America sometime during the 1990’s, so rarely was there significant comment or protest about the lack of pari-mutuel racing in the Commonwealth.  A dedicate group of breeders began pursuing live racing in the 1950’s and they achieved their goal of passing enabling legislation in 1988.

When applications to build a track didn’t come flooding in, the future stakeholders sought off-track betting legislation to motivate tack developers.  By the fall of 1993, the Virginia Racing Commission had received six applications in four very different geographic locations:

* Virginia Racing Associates, headed by former state Sen. Elmon T. Gray and Standardbred breeder William M. Camp Jr., planned to destroy a low-income housing complex to build a $50 million track in Portsmouth.

* Churchill Downs Inc. of Kentucky would build a $47 million track in Virginia Beach in the flight path of military aircraft.

* Arnold Stansley would build a $40 million track in New Kent similar to tracks he operates in Ohio and Texas and would let Maryland Jockey Club President Joe De Francis operate a summertime thoroughbred meet at the track.

* De Francis had originally applied for a track in Loudoun County near Dulles Airport but had to withdraw the application when local voters rescinded the enabling referendum.

* Covington dentist Jeffrey Taylor would build a $30 million track in New Kent.

* Middleburg horse breeder and Puerto Rico racetrack operator Jim Wilson would build a $40 million track near Haymarket with more thoroughbred racing than any applicant: 200 days.

In retrospect, the summaries above illustrate exactly what went wrong.  The Virginia Racing Commission was comparing “apples to oranges” and the process eventually led to a compromise that still resonates today.

Simply put, Virginia’s process was terribly flawed.  Other new racing jurisdiction picked a location and then accepted applications.  For example, in Texas, the first location chosen was Houston. If developers didn’t want to build a track in Houston, they could pass on the location.  Texas would eventually build tracks north of San Antonio (Bandera), San Antonio proper (Retama) and Dallas (Lone Star), but image how impossible it would have been to make the right choice if the Texas Racing Commission had been forced to choose between all of these locations hosting vastly different business plans?

For reasons unknown, Virginia’s process took on all comers on all locations.

The Gray/Camp group was focused on harness racing in a very urban area of Portsmouth.  De Francis had a good plan for a nice track in the right location along with a deal to closed down one of the closest major competitor but his plan crashed when Loudoun voters cast him out.  Churchill brought their credibility and their arrogance to Virginia with mixed reviews and a mile track and a seven furlong turf course located what seemed like a zillion miles from horse country.

The two applicants in New Kent County put forth modest applications and Stansley, a harness track owner, turned out to be smart enough to embrace turf racing and a circuit with the Maryland Jockey Club.  The other New Kent applicant was a dentist with no experience in racing or racetracks.

Jim Wilson, who owned and operated El Comadante in Puerto Rico had a good location in Prince William County (Haymarket), but was hampered by an unrealistic business plan that called for 200 days of racing in direct competition with Maryland and West Virginia.  At the time (like now), there was a sever horse shortage confronting Mid-Atlantic racetracks and Wilson’s plan seemed doomed to fail by most experts.

So the Commission was confronted with a group of very diverse and very flawed applications.  In retrospect, they should have called the whole thing off and started over.  This was a solution they may have considered, but with so many lawyers in the room representing applicants who had invested millions in the process, the likelihood of lawsuits probably eliminated a “restart” as an option.

In August of 1994, Wilson met with De Francis and his partner Marty Jacobs to discuss a Maryland/Virginia circuit that would include Wilson’s new track.  The MJC version of the plan was to delegate a season to the Virginia track and to continue racing as many traditional days in Maryland as possible.  The Wilson version (as explained to me by him the night before the meeting) was to run all year long and to divide the weeks up between the two states.  One state would run on Monday, Wednesday and Friday while the other would race on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.  Both tracks would go head-to-head on Saturday.  Both systems would need greatly expanded OTBs systems to support the racing calendar.  When it came to large off track betting systems and their impact, Wilson was way ahead of his time based on his experience in Puerto Rico where there were over 600 small betting locations.

This is one of those tidbits of Virginia racing history that few know as it was not publicly reported.  Wilson and I discussed the matter at length at the Fasig-Tipton pre-sale cocktail party at Saratoga. He was convinced it would work and I was convinced that De Francis and Jacobs (not to mention the Maryland horsemen) would never endorse Wilson’s concept.  Wilson was convinced he could sway them, I was not.  Right or wrong, I was right about their reaction.  They refused, the discussions collapsed and MJC aligned the circuit with Stansley and Colonial Downs).

Faced with such a diverse (not to mention complicated) set of circumstances, it seems as though the compromise was ultimately fueled by the circuit which would provide professional racetrack management and a supply of horses (complete with track supplied transportation to Colonial Downs).  The De Francis management team was unpopular in many circles, but in spite of the criticism, they were seen as a known entity with big event experience and a Mid-Atlantic resume.  Closing down one of the biggest and nearest competitors was a big part of the final decision.

The vote was eventually 4-0 with one abstention.

In retrospect, politics and money didn’t influence the decision.  There were no political careers at stake and anybody with sufficient in-state resources or, more importantly, the inclination to influence the outcome.  The biggest Virginia players – the Camps and former long-time State Senator Elmon Gray ran their application for the license by the book.  Anybody who says otherwise simply doesn’t/didn’t know Gray, Camp or Billy’s daughter Carrie.

The other applicants were viewed as neophytes or carpetbaggers or some ugly combination of the two.  Virginia provincialism was showcased during the process to no avail.  The Commission simply couldn’t find a Virginia-based ownership group, a  location combined with a business plan that made sense.

Hence the license was awarded to an Ohio harness track operator with questionable financing and a Mid-Atlantic management team that vowed to shut down Maryland racing in order to provide the horses need for Colonial Downs. — Glenn Petty


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  1. Francis Marion Bush Reply July 24, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Congratulations on improving the description of the startup of Colonial Downs as in my book “Colonial Downs and More”. You singled out a primary reason for the lack of success in developing and managing the track. To me, the union of Stansley and Maryland De Francis never made any sense. While Stansley had experience with trotters, he had limited to none with flat track racing. De Francis relationship was no better in reverse. The restrictions placed on Colonial Downs by each group from the beginning became worse with Stronach’s involvement in Maryland racing. Keep up your high quality writing. Francis Bush

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