Battle Brews Over Maryland, Virginia Dates

A plan by Colonial Downs to hold its 25-day Thoroughbred meet in June and July rather than September and October may open up the proverbial can of worms.

The Virginia Racing Commission approved the June 9-July 14 dates at its meeting Wednesday, but funding to support daily average purses of $200,000 at the New Kent track is not yet in place.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, in a close vote, decided it prefers the status quo -- Maryland would be dark from early September to mid-October, which has been the case since Colonial Downs opened in 1997.

Donald Barr, a trainer and member of both the Maryland THA board and the Virginia Racing Task Force, said five voting members of the Maryland THA board were absent from the Jan. 3 meeting. If they had been present, the vote may have been different, Barr said.

"A majority of the horseman support June (and July) racing in Virginia," Barr said. "Reduced racing dates may occur in Maryland in the future, anyway."

Not so, said Alan Foreman, chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. He said the Maryland THA prefers to be dark in September, traditionally a slow month in Maryland.

Foreman also said Maryland horsemen decided years ago to race for somewhat lower daily average purses in order to have year-round racing in the state.

"We can't have a situation where the Virginia Racing Commission is dictating to Maryland how and when it will run its racing dates," Foreman said. "The Maryland THA will urge the Maryland Racing Commission not to go dark in June and July."

John Mooney, president of the Maryland-Virginia Racing Circuit and general manager of Colonial Downs, said Maryland horsemen, especially those who have raced in Virginia before or are stabled in Virginia, support the spring-summer meet.

"The horsemen would like to treat it like a vacation, when child care and school aren't an issue," Mooney said.

Colonial Downs has had difficulty marketing its fall meet due to numerous other entertainment events such as a NASCAR race, the Virginia State Fair, and several local festivals. A reversal of the dates may be beneficial in Maryland because it would allow for more racing prior to the Maryland Million in October.

Joe De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates live racing at Colonial Downs, said it's all about "timing." If Colonial Downs can't work out a deal whereby purse money is available by June, "it's back to square one," he said. But if the financing is in place, De Francis said the MJC would ask the Maryland commission to tailor Maryland's dates around those of Virginia.

"That comes as a surprise to us," Foreman said of the MJC's intentions. "If Maryland goes along with Virginia, then horsemen will have to decide what they want to do."

Barr said he hoped Delaware becomes part of the Maryland-Virginia Circuit, even if racing days overlap. If Maryland were dark in June and July, Delaware Park, with its purses already fattened by revenue from video lottery terminals, would benefit by having larger fields.

The Virginia Racing Commission heard from the task force how financing for the purses for the June-July meet may occur. The task force is in the process of finalizing a short-term loan of $2.3 million to make up the balance needed for purses. The short-term loan is necessary, because not enough revenue from simulcasting would have accrued by June.

The Virginia commission also approved a 15-day Standardbred meet at Colonial, from Oct. 12-30. Harness racing also will be held at a new facility, Oak Ridge, from Sept. 21-Oct. 7. During that period, nine days of racing will be offered.