As Colonial Downs prepares to change ownership, the new company has a message for Virginians: “We’re bringing our checkbook.”
That’s what Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said during a recent visit to Richmond, as his group prepares to take over Virginia’s only Thoroughbred racing venue, as well as the six Rosie’s locations around the state.
Churchill Downs is the most famous venue in horse racing, hosting the annual Kentucky Derby, and once the deal to secure Colonial Downs’ parent company for $2.4 billion is in place, Carstanjen said his group intends to invest to build up its presence in Virginia.
“We really loved what we saw in Virginia, which is the rebirth of the equine business here,” he said. “It was historically an important part of the U.S. scene, but in the last number of decades it hasn’t been.”
He said he envisions taking the track from its current 22 days of racing to as many as 50 each season, as well as hosting big-name races like qualifiers for the Kentucky Derby at the New Kent County track.
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Colonial Downs opened in 1997, but was shuttered from 2013 to 2019 before being reopened as part of the agreement that brought the Rosie’s gambling facilities to the state.
Rosie’s locations, including one on Midlothian Turnpike, have a number of slot-style machines whose results are powered by historical horse racing data, as well as off-track betting facilities.
Churchill Downs has similar facilities in Kentucky, one reason Carstanjen said the acquisition makes sense for his company.
The track has the rights to put 10 Rosie’s locations around the state, but right now is only using six of the licenses. Carstanjen said the immediate focus will be on expanding to the maximum number.
The gambling landscape is different now than it was when Rosie’s first opened, and Churchill Downs will be arriving in a more competitive environment.
Virginia has since legalized online sports betting, and four localities have authorized the construction of full casinos, as well as the Virginia Lottery expanding into e-scratchers.
“We have a lot of confidence in our product,” Carstanjen said. “We have a lot of confidence in our business model, which is very similar to Rosie’s business model. So we think there’s a niche for us that we’ve demonstrated in Kentucky, and think we will demonstrate in Virginia, even though there’ll be more competition than there is currently.”
As part of the transaction, Churchill Downs will also inherit the stake in a proposed Richmond casino that Colonial Downs’ parent company, Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, held.
That facility, led by Urban One, remains up in the air pending the authorization of a re-vote in Richmond or a new vote in Petersburg. Carstanjen said it was too early for his group to have a stance on the specifics and that he will engage with lawmakers and learn more about the project before wading into it.
The group is also building a large-scale Rosie’s in Dumfries, with a planned $400 million investment, scheduled to open in late 2023.
But the product most associated with both tracks is horse racing, and Carstanjen hopes he can usher in a new era of excitement in the sport in Virginia.
Thoroughbred horse racing has taken a pair of hits to its reputation recently, with controversy over multiple animal deaths at the Santa Anita track during the 2019 racing season, and a Kentucky Derby marred by a positive drug test, and ultimately the overturning of the result, last year.
Carstanjen said he believes there is still a place for Thoroughbred racing on the American sporting scene.
“I’m the first to acknowledge that I’m biased, because I really enjoy it personally, and participate in it as a fan,” he said. “As a business and as an activity that has a place in U.S. society, I think it has a really bright future.
“But it does have challenges that have to be dealt with. It’s really important that the races are conducted with integrity, that the horses are safe, that they do not have inappropriate medications or substances in their body. All of those things have to be addressed appropriately, and with transparency.
“If those things are done in that manner, I think there’s a great future for the sport.”
Virginia’s history with horse racing goes back far beyond the 1997 opening of Colonial Downs. There were reports of horse races staged in the historic Henricus settlement as far back as 1674, and other equestrian attractions like Foxfield and polo matches in the Charlottesville area continue to draw fans.
There’s also the point of pride of being the home of Secretariat, for whom the Colonial Downs turf track is named.
When Churchill Downs underwent a yearlong renovation of its turf course last year, many of the trainers relocated the horses under their care to Colonial Downs.
One of those trainers was Michelle Lovell, who brought her turf horses from their traditional summer home in Kentucky to the meet at Colonial Downs, where she said she had a great experience.
“The purse structure was really good, from the top to the bottom, which is really important,” she said of the payouts for each race. “It’s a really nice turf course. And the dirt course was really fast, but it was safe. All positives.
“I actually just got off the phone with one of my owners, and he said, we’re going to Virginia again, right? So that’s a good thing.”
She said she found the staff to be friendly and the experience was a positive, feedback that made its way back to Kentucky.
Carstanjen hopes that more quality trainers and horses find their way to New Kent in the coming years, given his company’s experience in staging major races.
“Virginia really hasn’t had a company with the focus and passion for horse racing that we have,” he said.
“We view the horse racing piece as a big opportunity, and we think that’s good for everybody. Because the Thoroughbred racetrack is really just the tip of the iceberg. Below that surface, there’s all kinds of farm infrastructure, veterinarians, feed operations, just a plethora of activity that goes into getting a horse ready to go to a racetrack.”