Horse racing in the Virgin Islands is not starting up soon. As a matter of fact, the starting gate for the St. Thomas racetrack isn’t even in the territory. And senators from the Committee on Youth, Sports, Parks and Recreation don’t know who to blame.
Is it V.I. Game Limited Racing Operations, which has a franchise agreement with the government for 20 years in exchange for making $27 million of improvements to the racing facilities? Is it Department of Natural Resources holding up permits? Or was it the senators themselves for approving the franchise agreement in the first place?
Sen. Athneil Thomas Monday chose the latter.
“Prior to the legislation we had horse racing; since the legislation we have had none,” he said.
He urged senators to be more careful in the legislation they pass. He said the legislation the senate passed in 2016 gave “an entity the right to close us down.” He said the legislation had too many loopholes and made too many promises.
Sen. Dwayne DeGraff said he attended the session when the legislation making the franchise agreement possible was passed in 2016 and he was a senator-elect but had not taken office yet. He said it was passed at 2 a.m. when most of the territory was asleep and that made it seem “shady then.”
On the other hand, Sen. Janelle Sarauw was not buying that the Senate was to blame. She said it was up to the executive branch of the government to negotiate the details of the franchise. She blamed politics.
“We have to stop being Arturo Watlington’s puppets in this institution,” she said.
Watlington is a member of the Nadir Horse Owners and Trainers Association. The organization sent a letter to Gov. Albert Bryan last month expressing frustration at seeing three years pass without being able to stage the traditional Carnival horse races on St. Croix or St. Thomas.
Sarauw said horse owners had asked that the starting gate be taken to Tortola and they were racing there. She added that Watlington’s horse had won purses in the British Virgin Island races.
She also said the blame might lie with the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and the Costal Management Zone board for not approving permits so VIGL could start work.
Sen. Javan James, chairman of the committee, after Sarauw’s comments, read a letter from Jean-Pierre Oriol, commissioner of DPNR. Oriol wrote that the permits for work at Clinton Phipps Racetrack on St. Thomas and the Randall “Doc” James Racetrack on St. Croix had been approved. He said work on both tracks started in May, however work had to be stopped on St. Thomas after Olasee Davis appealed the issuing of the permit there.
Lance Griffith, president of VIGL, and Jason Williams, VIGL general manager, were invited to testify, but declined to show because VIGL is now involved in a legal case with the territory.
Southland Gaming in December sued the V.I. government in federal court over the terms of an exclusive franchise agreement to operate slot machines for the V.I. Lottery in the District of St. Thomas-St. John. VIGL joined the lawsuit as a co-litigant.
Even without the testifiers, James said it was necessary to go on with the hearing because residents of the islands wanted an update on the situation.
Legislative Youth Advisory Council
The committee also received testimony on two bills concerning the Legislative Youth Advisory Council.
Testifying in favor of both bills were two former members of the council – Raeniqua Victorine and AnuMaat Kahina.
“As someone who was disappointed that the prospects of training successors did not come to fruition, I support this measure since it would keep the youth engaged in the council and would also help to remind our legislators that constant attention is required to keep the council alive,” Victorine said.
The bills were voted on favorably to be forwarded to the Rules and Judiciary Committee. One would give the incoming legislators six months to appoint members to the council and the other would allow members of the council to serve until replacement members were appointed. Sarauw suggested the bill should have been combined into one bill.