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Colonial Downs impasse heading to mediation

A mediator has been hired to try to resolve an impasse that threatens to shut down Virginia’s only parimutuel racetrack.

Dennis W. Dohnal, a retired judge who now works for the McCammon Group, is scheduled to meet with the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and Colonial Downs Racetrack on Wednesday at the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond.

“He’s very expensive but he’s very good,” Bernie Hettel of the Virginia Racing Commission said of Dohnal. “Hopefully we walk out of that meeting with this thing settled.”

The dispute involves the number of racing days at Colonial Downs annual summer meet, which is scheduled to be held from mid-June through mid-July.

Colonial Downs initially sought only 12 top-quality races over a four-week period, while the horsemen’s association wanted an eight-week summer meet.

In December, the Virginia Racing Commission attempted to compromise by granting a five-week, 25-day meet, the same as last year.

The horsemen argued that a five-week meet is too short and refused to renew its contract with Colonial Downs.

Seven days after the old contract expired on Jan. 28, Colonial Downs, in accordance with state law, was forced to halt thoroughbred wagering at all eight of its off-track betting parlors across the state. Now only harness race wagering is permitted. Wagering on dog racing has never been allowed.

Hettel said Friday that he can understand the horsemen association’s concern.

“It costs a lot of money to transport a horse up here from, say, South Florida,” he said. “Unless that owner can get at least three races during the meet, he likely can’t pay for the trip. The horsemen have a valid argument.”

It is, however, the off-track betting parlors, not live racing, that bring in the bulk of racing revenues to the state treasury—an estimated $80 million annually.

With major tracks such as Keeneland and Churchill Downs about to open and Triple Crown prep races now being run, Virginia stands to lose millions if the dispute is not resolved soon.

“This is the best time of year for players,” Colonial Downs marketing director Darrell Wood said in early February. “I hope this gets resolved—soon.”

The current situation does not affect online account wagering at numerous kiosks around the state.

If there is no live thoroughbred racing meet this summer, it could also spell the end for Colonial Downs, which has experienced financial problems since it opened in 1997.

Donnie Johnston:

djohnston@freelancestar.com

 

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