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 Editorials

Thoughts from our editor, Joe Clancy. For archived editorials click here.

The racing issues in Virginia are surely far too complex to solve on a magazine page, but what is going on? Horsemen and ownership can’t agree on a racing schedule and therefore a 2014 without any Thoroughbred racing at Colonial Downs is a very real possibility.

And if there’s no 2014 season, what becomes of Colonial? Can the track come back with the “highest quality racing” program touted in an early April press release? Can management and the HBPA get along? Will a new horsemen’s group form? Can enough horsemen find opportunities elsewhere this year to return to Colonial in 2015? Was all of this bluster that will burn off like morning fog and be settled by summer?

Nobody knows, and that’s the really scary part.

Colonial’s release mentioned a short meet in September with $500,000 a day in purses. The six-day lineup will be centered on the Virginia Derby-G2 and showcase high-level turf races on Colonial’s acclaimed Secretariat Turf Course. The strip pays homage to the most famous Virginia-bred, born in Doswell, but may go dormant until a new direction is found. Colonial hosted the Dogwood Classic steeplechase meet in April, but Thoroughbreds might otherwise be absent from the New Kent track.

The impasse between ownership and horsemen grew early this year. Colonial wanted to change the structure of the meet to help offset decreases in attendance and handle last year. Horsemen proposed 30 days of racing spread over eight weeks in June and July. Colonial proposed 27-day and 23-day scenarios, each centered on clusters of racing on weekends/holidays, a short September meet and some Thoroughbred races in conjunction with the harness meet. Earlier proposals were to repeat the 2013 schedule of a 25-day meet over five weeks (rejected by the HBPA) and a 21-day, seven-week meet (rejected by Colonial).

So here we are. There’s no sign of racing in Virginia, nor is there a simulcast contract which shut down the Thoroughbred signal at Colonial Downs off-track betting locations.

Obviously, the disagreement centers on two things-overhead and the level of racing. A short meet with high purses appeals to Colonial because overhead decreases. In addition, attention and notoriety increase. Horsemen want to preserve the opportunities they’ve long had at Colonial, a meet that fills a niche with turf racing for horses of all qualities. Horsemen also don’t want to see steps occur that make it easier to simply drop racing at Colonial altogether.

Colonial’s new vision, outlined in the release with statements by owner Jeffrey Jacobs and president Ian Stewart, leads with the powerhouse boutique turf meet but also mentions “additional days of Thoroughbred racing earlier in the year written with conditions attractive to Virginia Thoroughbred horsemen.”

So the door is open, a little, to compromise and a mix of racing that might satisfy local owners, trainers and breeders. A few paragraphs later, the release fires warning shots pointing to a new direction.
“Virginia’s pledge in its Racing Act is to ‘maintain horse racing of the highest quality.’ We are not achieving that goal,” said Jacobs in the release. “Spreading racing out over eight to 10 weeks with daily purses that are no longer competitive has resulted in a steady decline in the quality of racing, significantly lower foal production in Virginia and an unsustainable racing model for all stakeholders.”

Then the release mentions that Colonial will work to identify horsemen who share the track’s vision and progress toward the boutique meet concept. The HBPA defended its position in a letter, stating that it is “not going to give up live racing without a fight.”

Now here’s a familiar theme. The racing industry divided over the details. Not exactly a strong strategy to win friends and influence people. It’s easy to sit here and scream unity, but that’s what racing needs. More division won’t help anybody.

It’s about trust. Horsemen need to trust the track to do the right thing and not make one year’s decrease in racing dates the next year’s closing of the stable area or whatever other issue is connected to the hot button. And the track needs to trust the horsemen to understand the mechanisms (and costs) in place when a racetrack is open.

Virginia should learn something from Maryland and hammer out a 10-year agreement to create longevity and stability. Breeders, owners and trainers need to know a racing schedule is in place–long term–before they can make decisions on matings, purchases and entries. Just as important, racetracks need to know what they’re facing in terms of racing dates, revenue and expenses.

Thoroughbred people in Virginia always mention the history filled with powerhouse breeding farms, sales consignments and stakes winners. It’s a beautiful, serene image of yesterday.

Yesterday matters in Virginia, but so does today.

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