Dodson James has been in the business of horse racing for more than 40 years. During Monday’s Rules and Judiciary Committee hearing he passionately expressed his dreams for what the industry could be in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Committee members forwarded his nomination for a position on the Virgin Islands Horse Racing Commission to the full Senate.
“Horse racing in the Virgin Islands has not grown to the point where we should be,” James said. He detailed a history to the committee of individuals who in 1965, through sheer determination, brought professional racing to the territory.
“The first starting gates, pari-mutuel wagering, a multifunctional tote board, track railings and turnstiles were introduced in the Virgin Islands. We were racing every other Sunday in St. Croix,” James said.
But that was 55 years ago, and the territory is nowhere near that now.
The Horse Racing Commission has been fraught with challenges in previous years, but James did not detail the Commission’s shortcomings and instead said that the territory has all the tools to bring the sport back to its former grandeur.
“We are right on the cusp of doing everything perfect. We have everything in place, but we have to understand in order to have professional races we have to also be professional and that’s one of the biggest problems we have,” James said.
In order for the territory to host professional races with purses that get into the range of $100,000 and more, James said a few small things would have to change, but, “we are just as good as America at getting a horse ready and getting that big day ready.”
One of the “easy” changes suggested by James was the establishment of a jockey school.
“We have several accomplished riders here in the territory. We can do a jockey school the same way Puerto Rico has done a jockey school. The state of Panama has done the same thing. We have riders here like Elmo Barnes, who has been in the industry for a number of years. Christian Soto and Steven Powell, these are jockeys who are my age. They can be a part of developing a jockey school program which will teach them everything about what they need to do in respect to riding,” James said.
He added that the fruition of a jockey school would be simple and said, “It wouldn’t take long because the institution of training would be right there at the racetrack.”
Though James acknowledged that horse racing is an “expensive endeavor” and a “tough industry,” he said the territory has the advantage of already allowing “racino” gambling, the combination of a racetrack with casino.
“Most tracks across America that do not have racino right now have closed. They are dying, they are shut down. The only way horse racing has been able to survive right now is through the advent of racino. We are lucky to be able to have the racino, but we can’t only rely on the racino. We have to do an educational process so people can understand more about horse racing. Most people who go to a racino racetrack do not even watch horse racing, but the funding from the racino is to supplement and provide for the purses,” James said.
James said he could remember when horse racing used to be the biggest spectator sport in the Virgin Islands, but now falls behind Carnival and V.I. Agrifest. His hope is to see it rise again as “it is still the most beautiful sport, horse racing.”
In addition to the forwarding of James’ nomination, the committee also voted to forward three other nominees to sit on various government boards.
Now up for review by the full body is nominee Jenny Hawkes to serve on the Virgin Islands Board of Career and Technical Education, Willard John to serve on the V.I. Port Authority Board of Governors and Dr. Jerry Smith to serve on two boards. If approved by the full body Smith would be reappointed to the Virgin Islands Board of Physical Therapy and serve on the Virgin Islands Government Hospitals and Health Facilities Corporation for the St. Thomas/St. John District.
Sens. Novelle Francis Jr., Kenneth Gittens, Myron Jackson, Javan James and Janelle Sarauw all voted in favor of each nominee. Sens. Alicia Barnes and Steven Payne Sr. were absent.
Committee Forwards Five Bills
Members of the Committee on Rules and Judiciary forwarded five bills, in addition to the four nominees, to the Committee of the Whole.
The bills up for final review are:
– Bill 33-0226, which would designate the territory’s first official madras design.
– Bill 33-0230, which will honor the memory of librarian Beulah Smith Harrigan by naming the children’s room at the Charles Wesley Turnbull Regional Library after her.
– Bill 33-0242, which would authorize the V.I. Legislature to send a letter asking Congress to permanently increase federal Medicaid funding in the territory to 100 percent.
– Bill 33-0244, which would establish the month of May as Virgin Islands Mental Health Awareness Month in the territory.
– Bill 33-0249, which would designate the Department of Tourism along with the Department of Agriculture, and potentially the University of the Virgin Islands, to host an annual Caribbean Agricultural Symposium.
Sens. Francis, Jackson, James and Sarauw were all present for the voting of each bill. Sens. Barnes, Gittens and Payne were absent.