Thoroughbred racing returned to Virginia’s Colonial Downs this summer, after a 6-year absence.
And those willing to bet even the change in their pocket can help keep it going, placing wagers on historical races at new betting parlors around the state. Each of those sites provide a tax benefit that remains in the community.
Now under new ownership, Colonial Downs held 15 days of races this summer, and plans to expand that schedule in 2020.
“I’ve had a trifecta win for $500,” said Doug Gurney, who recalls bets he placed at the track as far back as 20 years ago.
“When I was younger, I used to watch the triple-crown races, stuff like that. You can make money off it, if you know what to look for.”
Another fan, Jerry Jones, said he would far prefer betting on a live race that he’s about to watch, and not historical ones, re-created at the Rosie’s Gaming Emporium sites, that are open year round.
“My way is not scientific, but I try to bet on the higher odd horses,” Jones said. “I like watching them run. If I was going to play (indoors, at Rosie’s) it would be on table games, which we don’t have yet, but we will soon enough.”
Colonial Downs works in tandem with the four Rosie’s sites around the state. The one in Vinton, just outside Roanoke, has 150 machines. The atmosphere is a bit like a casino, without the table games. Historical Horse Racing machines function like slot machines.
Those betting on thousands of historical races don’t know where or when they occurred, or the names of the horses. The machines function on a pari-mutuel system, which means players are betting against one another, like live racing, and can get a look at prior stats for horses and jockeys before placing wagers that can range from 25-cents to $5.
Customers can also bet on a few live races they can watch via satellite.
“Our goal was to keep this kind of gaming opportunity inside the Commonwealth,” said Vinton General Manager Ernie Dellaverson. He said it’s the element of surprise that makes the business fun. “There was a gentlemen here that one $50,000 the other night, and didn’t even blink at it. And there was a young lady that won $50 the other night, and she was dancing in her chair.”
Profits from the gaming sites support the horse racing industry.
Each Rosie’s also generates 1-and ¼ percent in taxes – monies split between the Commonwealth, the track in New Kent, and the community where the gaming site is based.
Officials in Vinton became interested in that revenue once the General Assembly approved legislation in 2018 to allow wagers on historical races.
The Assistant Town Manager and Director of Economic Development, Richard Peters, sees the potential to fulfill a 10-year backlog of capital needs.
“Rosie’s is actually something we didn’t count on originally, but when those funds came in, we put them to immediate good use,” he said. “Police cars, and public works vehicles, but also infrastructure needs, road improvement projects, and street lamps. Things that really make the community kind of updated.”
In Vinton, Rosie’s has brought in more than $350,000 in tax revenue through its first five months.
The bets on historical races could have a similar impact in Richmond, where Rosie’s operates its largest center with 700 gaming machines, netting more $500,000 in three months.
But City Councilwoman Kim Gray says she’d like to see those funds targeted for specific needs.
“I think you would have to have very specific language that earmarks revenue from historical betting – that says ‘hey, a percentage has got to go towards funding school capital needs for instance, or programming for our seniors.”
Gray admits such a resolution could not be binding, since the current council can’t plan the budget for future members.
Councilman Michael Jones said he’s happy to hear Rosie’s has agreed to a long-term relationship with the city, which includes upgrading parts of the South Richmond where it’s located.
“My thing with (Rosie’s) is, I wanted them to be a good neighbor, and giving back to the community that they’re in,” he said.
The Colonial Downs Group will be donating $500,000 to Miles Jones Elementary School in Richmond over the next five years.
As for the future of Rosie’s elsewhere in Virginia, Colonial Downs spokesman Mark Hubbard says the ownership group expects to open a fifth betting parlor in Chesapeake next year. Next week, voters in Danville, near the North Carolina line, and in Dumfries, in Northern Virginia, will decide via referendum if those communities will have locations of their own.
Casino gambling is still illegal in Virginia, but the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission is expected to release a study on that issue by the end of year, for lawmakers to review during the 2020 session.
Del. Chris Peace (R-Hanover) was among the sponsors of the measure that allowed for wages on historical horse races. He’ll also be part of the JARC discussion, but expects any steps towards legalized casinos in the Commonwealth will take more than one year.
“Once you get into it, it’s going to continue to evolve, and the question is, if you get to design your own program, how much are going to do at one time?”
For now, Peace said he’s excited to have been part of re-starting thoroughbred races in Virginia.