There Was Watergate, Troopergate, Nannygate and Now … Starting Gate

A bend int eh course at the Clinton-Phipps Racetrack on St Thomas. (Source photo)
A bend in the course at the Clinton-Phipps Racetrack on St Thomas. (Source photo)

A complaint recently lodged by a group of St. Thomas horse owners about the future of Clinton-Phipps Racetrack raised questions about a piece of government property once used there.

According to a top government official, the track’s starting gate left the shores of St. Thomas and is sitting on the British Virgin Islands.

When the device used to position racehorses for sports competition will return is uncertain, said Sports, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Calvert White. According to White the gate has been shuttled back and forth with support from the St. Thomas-St. John Horseowners Association.

White and officials associated with USVI horseracing say the gate has been shuttled back and forth between St. Thomas and Tortola in an effort to keep the sport alive. During the last trip, the starting gate malfunctioned and is awaiting repair, the commissioner said.

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“They are fixing that and as they fix it – the gate – it will be back in the territory,” White said.

The absence of the Clinton-Phipps starting gate was noted in a June 21 letter from the Nadir Horse Owners and Trainers Association Inc. The letter, signed by 15 horse owners, claimed the device had not been on St. Thomas since the start of 2019.

“Our usvi government owned starting gate has been in Tortola for all of this year. They running up there with our resources and we can’t run here,” the letter to Gov. Albert Bryan said.

The estimated cost of a race track starting gate is between $85,000 and $200,000. Officials in the USVI have been asked to explain how an expensive piece of government property could make its way out of a U.S. territory to an island controlled by the United Kingdom.

“The starting gate was purchased through Sports, Parks and Recreation,” said V.I. Horseracing Commissioner Jay Watson. “The commissioner gave an explanation about helping to assist having horse racing in the territory.”

But another source said all government property comes under shared ownership of the agency it’s intended for and the Department of Property and Procurement. P&P Commissioner Anthony Thomas said he first heard about the traveling starting gate when an inquiry was made to his office by phone.

“It’s the property of the U.S. Virgin Islands government. I don’t think I would allow it to be moved,” Thomas said.

The first time the device was transported to the BVI came as a request from racing officials there.

“The issue here is they have a track in Tortola but they don’t have a gate. We have a gate but we don’t have a track,” White said.

The device was sent with approval from then-Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter. It came back to St. Thomas when the racing event was done. Since then, White said, the gate has made about four round trips, with St. Thomas-St. John Horseowners Association paying transportation costs.

“The gate has been to Tortola about four times. The last time it went up, it didn’t come back down and that’s because there is a problem with the wheels,” he said.

Sharing equipment with the B.V.I. also helped provide a racing venue for St. Thomas horses, the commissioner said.

Association president Clinton Hendrington supported the commissioner’s account. Every time the gate is needed on Tortola, the association president sends a letter to the Department of Sports, Parks and Recreation saying what event it’s needed for, and when the device will be used and when it’s expected to be returned.

“This event with Tortola using the gate happened about two years ago. It was before the storms. They contacted us and told us they had difficulty with their gate. Tortola’s track was the only track available to run the horses safely,” Hendington said.

White added that the loss of opportunity to train and race St. Thomas horses was impacting their health, leading to death, in some cases. The option of staging races inside the territory, on St. Croix, was also out of the question.

“The gate on St. Croix has been destroyed. It’s been cut up, chopped up and it’s sitting in a pile,” Watson said.

But both White and Hendrington expressed bewilderment about the grievance of the Nadir group.

Under the 2016 deal reached on race track development by then-Gov. Kenneth Mapp, management of Clinton-Phipps and the Randall “Doc” James Racetrack on St. Croix fall under the gaming corporation, VIGL Operations, LLC. Billed as an economic development plan, both sports venues are supposed to be expanded and enhanced with gaming facilities, bars, restaurants and infrastructure.

“For liability reasons they will not be able to use the gate on that track,” the commissioner said, adding that a certified track handler must be put in place beforehand.

Hendrington said he couldn’t understand why the Nadir group was complaining about the gate being in Tortola because some horses belonging to members of the group had won races there.

Under a mutual assistance agreement reached between the two territories in the late 1990’s the BVI and the USVI agreed to work together to promote common interests. One of the areas identified included cultural events.

In the future, White said, he would write to BVI officials, proposing a new arrangement.

“We wrote a letter and said we sent the gate up for horse races, but in the future you will have to rent it,” the commissioner said.

The racing commissioner, however, favors a different approach.

“Calvet explained the gate was purchased through Sports, Parks and Recreation and it was their purview. I see it differently because I feel the starting gate falls under Horseracing; unless VIGL leased the starting gate,” he said.

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