Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill allowing historical racing machines at Colonial Downs in New Kent and at 10 off-track betting facilities. In his signing statement, Northam said he supported the legislation because he hopes it will “reinvigorate the horse industry and allow Thoroughbred racing to return to Virginia.”
Northam also directed the Virginia Racing Commission to write regulations that require the “placement of reasonable limitations on the proliferation” of gambling in the state and “maximize opportunities for public engagement, comment and public review” during the drafting and approval of the regulations. The directive also called for “local community options in determining whether to allow” the devices.
Observers said Northam’s directive could limit Colonial’s owners from seeking to set up a network of gambling parlors throughout Virginia. Prior to the legislative session, Chicago-based Revolutionary Racing reached a deal to buy the shuttered track from current owner Jacobs Entertainment, contingent on the legislation passing. The last live horserace at Colonial was held in 2014.
Currently, the four OTBs operating in Virginia are run by the Virginia Equine Alliance, an umbrella group for horse interests in the state that was formed after Colonial shutdown and given the licenses to keep the simulcast facilities afloat. Under state racing law, passed in 1998, up to 10 OTBs are allowed in the state, as long as local communities hold referendums to approve them.
Virginia Equine Alliance Executive Director Jeb Hannum said “perhaps 10” communities have passed referendums allowing for OTBs, although not all of them have OTBs. Hannum said the votes were conducted before the legislation authorizing the gambling machines passed but the results of will remain in force under the new law. However, that could lead to problems if community leaders declare the votes were held in a different legal environment.
The new law requires the Virginia Racing Commission to write the regulations within 180 days from the date the law goes into effect, July 1. In a statement, the commission said, “As directed by Governor Northam, the commission looks forward to the process of drafting comprehensive regulations for historical horseracing to ensure the integrity of the wagering activity in a manner consistent with the intent of the General Assembly.”
In Kentucky, total handle on historical racing machines installed at three racetracks was $970 million in fiscal 2017, with track owners retaining $58.7 million of that total, according to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
Last year, the commission approved an application by Churchill Downs to operate the machines at its Trackside training facility in Louisville.