NEW KENT, Va. (AP) — In the state where famed Triple Crown winner Secretariat was born, off-track betting parlors that would ordinarily be packed with gamblers watching California Chrome try to match Secretariat's feat Saturday will likely be closed or almost empty.
A dispute between horsemen and the state's only thoroughbred race track over the future of horse racing in Virginia has closed off track betting on thoroughbred racing across the state. The only way to bet on California Chrome in Virginia is online, a process many of the industry's predominantly older fans don't feel comfortable embracing.
"I'm bummed out," said Gary Cunningham, a carpenter who bets a few times a week at an off track parlor in Chesapeake. "I'm not really a computer whiz. I'm more of a simple man."
The problem at Colonial Downs are mirrored at race tracks around the country, where the costs of running live races often exceed the amount made by the wagering that takes place on them. The racing industry has struggled to recover from the Great Recession, and has been hampered by a declining foal crop and increased competition from other forms of legalized gambling.
Nationally, total U.S. pari-mutuel handle in 2013 — a measure of overall horse betting — was essentially unchanged from the previous year at $10.88 billion, according to The Jockey Club in New York. That's compared with $15.18 billion in 2003.
Most thoroughbred race track profits come from off track betting parlors that can broadcast races year-round held at other tracks. In many other states, including some of Virginia's neighbors, race tracks also are able to subsidize the purses they offer winners with onsite casino gambling.
"One of the issues Virginia has, because of where they are, is they're also surrounded by tracks that have alternative gambling. So those tracks are offering more money and purses. So you have Maryland now, you have West Virginia, you have Pennsylvania, you have Ohio,"" said Liz Bracken, associate coordinator at the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program.
Colonial Downs — and all the state's off track betting parlors — can't accept any wagers on thoroughbred racing until it comes to an agreement with the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association about the number of racing days it will hold this year. The contract between the two expired at the end January, closing the off track betting parlors to thoroughbred wagers during the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Only wagers on harness races are allowed, and Colonial Downs has closed four of its eight Virginia off track betting parlors.
"It was a detrimental thing to people that came here to play the horses," said off track betting regular Gary Cunningham. "It was almost a slap in the face."
Colonial Downs says it needs to run fewer races so it can provide bigger purses, which it argues will attract better horses, jockeys and trainers to its isolated track off Interstate 64 and gain the interest of gamblers around the world. The horsemen say they need more opportunities to win to recoup their training costs, which can exceed $2,000 a month.
Colonial Downs says it's already lost $1.5 million in revenue because of the off track betting closures. While the track was once prepared to offer 25 days of racing this summer, Colonial Downs President Ian Stewart says that's no longer case. The track has said it only wants to run six races this year.
Colonial Downs officials have said they're prepared to go without any thoroughbred racing this year — and possibly longer — if it means changing the way things are done in Virginia to make the 18 year old track nationally relevant. However, those involved in the industry say the only thing the track cares about is cutting its expenses.
"All this stuff that they're saying about them looking for excellence is an absolute crock," said Ferris Allen, a Clarksville, Md.-based horse trainer whose stable is the winningest in the track's history.
Allen said reducing races still wouldn't increase the purses enough to make it attractive to the most competitive horses.
"Both sides have legitimate points," said Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, of which Colonial Downs is not a member. "There are no good guys and bad guys in this one."