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A Thriving Industry

J. Sargeant Reynolds Jr. column: Take horse racing to the finish line

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I remember the morning of Aug. 8, 2019, like it was yesterday. Colonial Downs had been closed for six years and this was the day horse racing returned to the New Kent County track.

None of us were certain what the future would hold for horse racing and breeding, and the state’s many horse farms. What we did know is a good plan was in place via the Virginia Racing Commission (VRC), the Virginia Equine Alliance (VEA) and others.

Fast forward to today and we are seeing the results of a lot of groups and individuals working hard to make the industry successful for years to come.

Considering Virginia’s horse racing industry and the economic impact it now is generating, it’s evident that the horses have left the gates and are running, so to speak. The industry generated $542.1 million in the commonwealth in 2019, according to a study released in 2021 by the VEA — the organizational body that promotes the racing and breeding industry throughout the state.

Despite the effects of COVID-19, we have seen that jobs are coming back, horse racing-related expenditures are up and tax revenue to the state is increasing. These all are very positive signs, showing that the racing industry is moving in the right direction, and benefiting the commonwealth’s agribusiness and related businesses.

This all is significant because horse racing was at a low point in 2014 after the closure of Colonial Downs. However, the General Assembly took a number of important steps, most notably the passage of historical horse racing (HHR) machines in 2018, that provided the revenue to reopen the track and revitalize the industry. Lawmakers also put in place mechanisms for the VRC and others to dictate how and where monies would flow to the horse farms, and the riders.

The VRC’s mission is to sustain and grow a native horse racing industry with pari-mutuel wagering by prescribing regulations that promote excellence and integrity in racing and wagering. As a former VRC chair and board member, I cannot overstate how much the group has done to partner with others in the state, to make certain the horse racing relaunch was successful and to ensure it will continue into the future.

Even with horse racing industry changes, such as Colonial Downs soon having a new owner, the VRC will be the group that continues to oversee important aspects of the industry. It’s a key functioning body that is driving success, whether it pertains to the horses, the farms or the HHR machines.

Let’s not forget that Virginia has a rich history of breeding and racing thoroughbreds, even from before the days of Triple Crown-winning Secretariat from Caroline County, and continuing to today. The equine industry is an important part of our agriculture economy, especially in rural parts of the commonwealth. A successful horse industry means more farms remain economically viable, which in turn makes it easier to maintain and conserve productive farmland throughout Virginia.

On July 11, Colonial Downs opened its 9-week summer season with a crowd of more than 3,000 people on hand and a record opening-day wagering handle of more than $3 million. The 27-day meet will continue through Sept. 7, with free general admission and a stable area full of horses, all while riders chase $625,000 in purse monies per day.

I’ll be coming out to the track on a regular basis, and I encourage everyone to do the same. Cheer on the horses, particularly on Virginia Derby Day, which is Sept. 6.

I am pleased the results of legislative action, as well as the commission’s work and collaboration, are providing the support needed to ensure that Virginia continues to be a place where the horse industry can thrive.

J. Sargeant Reynolds Jr., served on the Virginia Racing Commission for 12 years, as well as during the closure and reopening of Colonial Downs. He retired from the commission in 2021. Contact him at: sarge@reydev.com

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