Virginia Derby Purse Hike Approved By Panel

The Virginia Racing Commission has approved a request that would allow Colonial Downs to become a guarantor of the debt of its parent company, Gameco. The proposal is part of a long-range plan that increases the purse of the Virginia Derby to $500,000 for at least three years.

Commission approval, received April 17, was necessary because the request could potentially involve a transaction of $15,000 or more.

"This is part of building up the Virginia Derby to national prominence and to make it a center stone in building Virginia as the turf capital," said Jim Weinberg, the attorney for Colonial Downs. "This improves upon what is already an improving situation."

With the commission's approval, $500,000 would be infused into Colonial Downs specifically for the Virginia Derby: $150,000 in purse money to be matched with funds from the purse account; $100,000 to book "a national caliber entertainer to get people to the track"; and $250,000 in capital improvements to assist in the handling the anticipated larger crowds.

With the purse increase, officials with Colonial Downs and the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association hope to make the Virginia Derby a graded stakes. The race will be run July 13 this year.

"It's not the amount of the purse, it's the quality of the horses that run and what they do before and after the races that makes it a graded stakes," said Virginia HBPA representative Peter Burnett.

"This is building a patron base to make it a true event, similar to steeplechase events," Weinberg said in reference to the Strawberry Hill Races, a non-wagering steeplechase program held April 15 at Colonial Downs. It attracted 20,000 people.

Gameco is a consolidation of five gaming entities in Colorado, Louisiana, and Nevada. As part of Gameco's recent acquisitions, $125 million in bonds were sold. Under the request, assets of Colonial Downs could be used to guarantee Gameco's bonds.

In addition to the cash infusion, Colonial Downs and the Virginia HBPA have established a committee to study the feasibility of opening other wagering facilities in Virginia. Satellite wagering facilities require a referendum by the host locality, so the committee would develop a "unified strategy that works financially and politically," Weinberg said.

The commission also heard a report from Oak Ridge Racing Associates, which operates the only other pari-mutuel racetrack in Virginia. Oak Ridge will not conduct pari-mutuel harness racing this year; the association has to invest in improvements at its Nelson County facility rather than take on additional losses anticipated from the Standardbred meet.

In 2001, Oak Ridge conducted nine days of harness racing.