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Tuesday, November 29, 2022
HomeNewsLocal newsNo Timeline on Horse Racing Restart, VIGL Tells Panel *Updated*

No Timeline on Horse Racing Restart, VIGL Tells Panel *Updated*

From right, VIGL Vice President Ted Schieffer, VIGL General Manager Jason Williams, Flamboyant Horsemen Association representatives David Brewster and Marcus Knight, St. Thomas-St. John Horsemen Association Vice President Stanley Smith and acting SPR Commissioner Calvert White, testify at Tuesday’s hearing. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)
From right, VIGL Vice President Ted Schieffer, VIGL General Manager Jason Williams, Flamboyant Horsemen Association representatives David Brewster and Marcus Knight, St. Thomas-St. John Horsemen Association Vice President Stanley Smith and acting SPR Commissioner Calvert White, testify at Tuesday’s hearing. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)

VIGL Racing Operations executives told lawmakers on Tuesday that there is no clear timeline on when live horse racing can resume in the territory, an outcome that hinges on the company meeting certain conditions before its franchise agreement with the Virgin Islands government can take effect.

Back in 2016 when Gov. Kenneth Mapp first announced the deal he had arranged with VIGL and proposed changes to V.I. law to further the plan, he gave a timeline of two years for 40 percent completion. While Mapp and VIGL officials told the Legislature changes to the law needed to be approved immediately, the Source reported at the time that the terms of the deal contained several loopholes that could put off the work indefinitely. Mapp and VIGL officials repeatedly emphasized firm deadlines in the deal:

“We have 30 days to present the project outline to the governor,” Griffith said. Once it’s presented there are 15 days for the government to ask for changes and another 15 days for VIGL to address proposed changes, so there will be about 60 days before the overall construction plan is finalized for one of the tracks, VIGL Vice President Lance Griffith said in November of 2016.

But the agreement contains clauses that allow those deadlines to be put off indefinitely as well.

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VIGL representatives testified Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Youth, Sports and Recreation, chaired by Sen. Javan James (D-STX), on the status of the territory’s racetracks. Lawmakers pressed VIGL for concrete timelines on construction on the racetracks on St. Thomas and St. Croix, and when live racing can resume, but did not get clear answers from testifiers.

“The live racing agreement takes effect when the franchise agreement takes effect,” said Jason Williams, general manager at VIGL Racing Operations. “We can’t race unless the racing commission sanctions it. We cannot run unsanctioned races.”

VIGL holds the franchise agreement for both the Clinton Phipps Racetrack on St. Thomas and the Randall “Doc” James Racetrack on St. Croix, each of which are in varying stages of readiness for live racing. VIGL’s franchise agreement with the government, however, has not been triggered because of some unmet conditions. Without an implemented franchise agreement, the live racing agreement with the horsemen association cannot take effect.

In 2016 VIGL entered into a 20-year Lease Franchise Agreement with the V.I. government to promote and conduct racing activities in the territory. Out of the $27 million investment commitment under the franchise agreement, VIGL has already spent roughly $5 million before the agreement start date, according to Williams, mostly on racetrack repairs and land purchase. Two conditions still need to be met, however: permits for construction for at least one of the tracks and a racino license.

The condition to obtain all the construction permits hit a hurdle that surfaced in V.I. Port Authority meetings in February. At the meeting, board members learned that the Coastal Zone Permit was in place for the St. Croix Racetrack, an element needed to move forward, but steps toward construction could not commence because the racetrack is on property designated for use by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Because the property is designated aviation, the V.I. Authority had to step in and move the racetrack from the aviation to the marine side of VIPA operations. For that to happen, the Port Authority needed to propose a payment plan for the property to FAA. On March 8, V.I. Horse Racing Commission Chairman Jay Watson, who sent correspondence saying he could not attend Tuesday’s hearing, said that payment proposal was scheduled to happen within a few weeks.

On March 11, Port Authority released a statement, saying on or before March 31, the agency was scheduled to complete the transfer of the race track’s real estate from its aviation division to its marine division at fair market value.

The racino license piece also needs to happen to trigger the franchise agreement start date.

“Right now, we’re looking at 20 months for substantial completion,” said Ted Schieffer, vice president of VIGL Racing Operations. “As I understand the franchise agreement there would have to be a casino to inspect for us to get that last piece for us to be able to get that franchise agreement in place.”

Schieffer said VIGL is well into the the selection process for contractors, even while awaiting the necessary permits.

Flamboyant Park Horsemen Association President David Brewster testifies at Tuesday’s hearing. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)
Flamboyant Park Horsemen Association President David Brewster testifies at Tuesday’s hearing. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)

David Brewster, president of the Flamboyant Park Horsemen Association, stressed how the local economy benefits from what he called the largest spectator events in the territory. As it stands, Brewster said the lack of a safe facility to train horses and the absence of races is putting a strain on St. Croix horsemen.

“The horsemen of St. Croix are suffering and our horses’ lives are being put to risk every day, especially the young horses, due to the fact the running surface is not operational, and the horses are not able to exercise and get their daily workout,” Brewster said.

While extensive work needs to be done on the St. Croix racetrack, St. Thomas’ Clinton Phipps racetrack is in better shape, with a safe running surface to train horses, new starting gates and new maintenance equipment on the tracks. But because VIGL’s franchise agreement was for both racetracks, the company cannot execute the live horse racing agreement on St. Thomas until the franchise agreement with the government begins.

Stanley Smith, vice president of the St. Thomas-St. John Horsemen Association, said their members have been training horses at the Phipps track, but without live racing, they have been taking their horses to the British Virgin Islands races in the last few months, incurring hefty travel costs. According to Smith, in 2017 the Association signed a temporary live horse racing agreement with VIGL that would allow up to nine races between August 2017 and August 2018, prior to meeting the conditions of the franchise agreement.

The 2017 hurricanes, however, derailed their plans, and attempts to get back on track have not been successful, he said.

“Since the [Phipps] racetrack has been open for training, horse owners have been spending thousands a month to train and take care of horses,” Smith said. “In November 2018, the association sent a letter to the Racing Commission requesting approval for temporary live horse racing for 2019. This again was an attempt to begin temporary racing as this was the plan prior to the storm. To date, the commission has not responded to this formal request.”

Smith added that the association wanted to amend the agreement to include four races within the calendar year.

Acting Sports, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Calvert White, who was present at Tuesday’s hearing, said the Horse Racing Commission is scheduled to meet with stakeholders, including VIGL, on Wednesday.

*This has been updated to add more background and history of the project.

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