Vinton might be off to the races once again.
With the Colonial Downs track in New Kent County now under new ownership and aiming for a 2019 reopening, Vinton may be in line to see a revival of its off-track betting parlor.
The horse racing track, Virginia’s only thoroughbred track, once operated a parlor in town for about a decade after local voters signed off on the idea in a close ballot referendum.
The facility on Vinyard Road was shuttered in 2014 as the track, which later closed, halted racing amid contract disputes between the prior owner and the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
Chicago-based Revolutionary Racing, which bought the track in the spring for more than $20 million, is now looking to resurrect that network of satellite facilities, starting with four locations, including Vinton.
“We’re excited by the overwhelming support and how we’ve been welcomed into these communities,” said Aaron Gomes, chief operating officer of the Colonial Downs Group.
“It’s a privilege for us to be part of a community,” he added. “We look forward to educating everyone on the projects we want to offer and to being good neighbors.”
The timing of the projects remains in flux, but officials hope to reopen Colonial Downs by spring 2019, then begin setting up off-track betting later that same year. In addition to Vinton, the list of phase one communities includes Hampton, Chesapeake and Richmond.
The betting parlor would include a full restaurant as it did before, but its look would be different, as would its name. The track plans to brand all satellite locations under the moniker “Rosie’s.”
The facility would also feature a new type of horse wagering just approved by the state and now working its way through the final regulation-writing process.
The format, dubbed historical horse racing, uses electronic terminals to allow users to bet on pre-recorded races. The devices are similar in appearance to slot machines but, like live racing, employ a pari-mutuel or pooled betting system.
The machines were deemed essential to the revenue formula needed to support live racing, and the sale of Colonial Downs was made contingent on their approval.
The measure had its skeptics — state lawmakers who voted against it included both legislators representing Vinton — but it ultimately passed the General Assembly and is now before the Virginia Racing Commission where details of the regulatory structure are being worked out.
The outcome of that process will determine the timing and scope of Colonial Downs’ next steps, officials said.
The horse racing industry is urging the commission to reconsider a draft proposal that calls for using a population-driven formula to determine how many historical racing machines can be placed in a locality.
The resulting caps are too restrictive, advocates say, and would weaken the track’s odds of success.
In Vinton, local leaders are joining those calls to ease the suggested caps. The town is one of the only communities in Western Virginia already set up for off-track betting, officials note, and its population of under 8,100 doesn’t reflect the size of the market that it would draw on.
The last betting parlor attracted customers from as far as West Virginia, said Assistant Town Manager and Economic Development Director Pete Peters.
“To be limited based on our population doesn’t seem fair,” said Mayor Brad Grose, adding that if Colonial Downs is going to return to Vinton, it should be given a legitimate shot at succeeding.
“To do that, we need to consider free market forces in determining the number of machines,” he said.
Under the draft proposal, Vinton would be limited to 150 historical horse racing machines. This month, in a formal resolution, the town council asked for that number to be raised to 500.
That benchmark is more reflective of the region’s metropolitan service area, officials said, and offers more flexibility to allow the town to realize the full benefit of a new business poised to create jobs and generate tax revenue.
Gomes said Colonial Downs hasn’t yet determined how many machines it might want to deploy in Vinton. But it was hoping for more than 150.
The racing commission is due to finish its work on the regulations later this year.
Those wary of historical horse racing have been worried about moving the state closer to casino-like slot machine gambling.
Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, said he was a supporter of the horse industry but felt the state had to be cautious when it comes to expanding gambling laws. He voted against allowing the electronic devices when the measure came before the General Assembly earlier this year.
“I have a hard time with these kind of machines,” he said, describing historical horse racing as a “slot machine by any other name.”
“We’ve just never had that kind of gambling in Virginia before,” he said. “It struck me as one of those camel’s nose under the tent type of things.”
Head, whose district includes Vinton, added he isn’t opposed to Colonial Downs or to the operation’s return to Vinton now that the measure has passed.
Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, also voted against the historical horse racing bill, according to state records. He didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Gomes, while noting the measure won a wide margin of support in the legislature, said he felt any lingering discomfort will fade as people see the machines in operation. Historical horse racing has been used with success in other states, he said.
“It’s essentially just an entertaining way for people to bet on horse races,” he said, adding that the satellite facilities are envisioned as modernized entertainment destinations with dining and the option of betting on pre-recorded or live races.
Vinton leaders said the last betting parlor created no burdens for the town. It wasn’t a hot spot for police calls or other ill effects.
Grose said town officials were also impressed by Revolutionary Racing’s plans and community-oriented philosophy.
“We thought they would be an asset to have in Vinton,” he said. “Like any new business, we would certainly welcome them and the revenue they bring to the community.”
The town made it onto Colonial Downs’ shortlist because of its location and the support the community has shown for the idea — both by ratifying the voter referendum back in 2003 and more recently by voicing its support to the racing commission.
The racetrack expects it would employ over 100 people in Vinton. The town would collect a small percentage of every wager placed at a local outlet, in addition to meals, business license, admissions, and other local taxes.
The track will review its plans once the state’s final regulations are known. The historical racing caps and other factors will be weighed as it considers where to roll out and when, Gomes said.
Virginia law caps the total number of off-track betting sites allowed statewide at 10. The Virginia Equine Alliance, which Colonial Downs is partnering with, currently offers four, with locations in Henry County, Richmond, Henrico County and Chesapeake.
Colonial Downs hasn’t settled on a location for a potential Vinton facility, but Gomes said one ideal option would be to resume in the same building it once occupied.
That building has sat dark since 2014. Henry Brabham, who owns the property and used to lease it to Colonial Downs, said he’s had inquiries about the site but couldn’t comment further.