Virginia thoroughbred race track to close Nov. 1 amid dispute with horsemen's association



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RICHMOND, Virginia — The owner of Colonial Downs surrendered his license to operate Virginia's only thoroughbred race track on Wednesday and said he'll close the turf oval on Nov. 1 amid a protracted dispute with horse owners and trainers.

Jeffrey P. Jacobs announced his decision at a meeting of the Virginia Racing Commission, which was to consider his proposal to bring in a new horsemen's group amenable to his vision of elevating the New Kent County track's national profile. He was proposing fewer races and bigger purses.

"This era is now over," Jacobs said in an interview after surrendering his license. "It hasn't worked as we wanted it to work."

Jacobs, the horsemen's association and others said the decision dimmed any prospect of thoroughbred racing being held at Colonial Downs in 2015. The dispute had already canceled the 2014 season.

"I would say right now the possibility is slim," said Todd Haymore, state secretary of agriculture and forestry. "There are some opportunities that we will explore."

Jacobs said he decided to surrender his license because he lacked the votes on the racing commission to approve a contract with the Old Dominion Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, a new group representing owners and trainers. He and the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association had been unable to reach agreement over the future of racing at the track.

"We aspire to create one of the top thoroughbred racing programs in America," Jacobs said in a statement to the commission. "We will work with those who share our vision; the HBPA does not."

Frank Petramalo Jr., executive director of the 1,300-member VHBPA, called Jacobs' new horsemen's association a "sham group" and cast the dispute as one of control rather than economics.

"The race track wanted unbridled control over the future of racing, which means race days, purses, et cetera, things that traditionally have been subject to bargaining and agreement between the track and the horsemen," Petramalo said in an interview.

The Nov. 1 closing will mean the immediate loss of 75 jobs at the track, located off Interstate 64. More than 350 workers are employed during the race season, Jacobs said.

For trainer Karen Godsey, the closing will mean she'll have to get a part-time job to make up for the loss of one-third of her income. She trains 20 horses during the track's season.

"I kind of built my whole career for this," said Godsey, whose parents were both trainers. "Yeah, it's huge."

Besides the lost jobs, Colonial Downs has been paying more than $2 million annually in state and local pari-mutuel taxes, according to Jacobs.

With Colonial Downs dark, Virginia's off-track betting parlors have also been shuttered because of a state law that requires there be live racing to accept wagers on other races around the country.

While Jacobs hoped to reduce the number of race dates to attract better horses and bigger purses, the horsemen's association said they needed more races to ensure the livelihood of owners and trainers.

Haymore said he'll continue to explore possibilities to revive racing in Virginia through the General Assembly and the governor's office.

Jacobs said he'll maintain the track, cutting the grass and continuing other maintenance, but he has no plans to sell.

"Once you shut down, it's pretty hard to reopen," he said.


Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.

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