Colonial Downs Group

Nate Mize, a director of marketing at Colonial Downs Group, demonstrates games on a historical horse racing machine at Colonial Downs in New Kent on Monday, March 25, 2019.

It’s not the first time Danville has debated an off-track betting facility, such as the one now eyed for the city. Residents voted against pari-mutuel betting during a state referendum in 1987, only to see it pass statewide.

But backers of an effort to put a local referendum on off-track betting before city voters believe changing times, a newer population and differences in gambling will bring a result in their favor this November — if the question appears on the ballot in Danville.

“Danville’s changes and the entertainment options and tourism options that Danville is pursuing are getting broader,” said Mark Hubbard, spokesman for Colonial Downs Group and the Danville Referendum Campaign.

In 1987, Virginia voters approved a ballot question — by a margin of 56.3% to 43.7% — allowing pari-mutuel betting on horse racing and providing for its regulation in the Commonwealth. Pari-mutuel wagering involves betting on horse or greyhound racing, with betting taking place through pools. Those holding the winning tickets divide the total amount bet in proportion to their wagers.

Though voters statewide approved it by a sizable margin 32 years ago, those in Danville cast their ballots against it 52% to 48% — or 6,602 to 6,099 votes, according to figures from the Virginia Department of Elections.

That also was the same year state voters decided to allow the lottery in Virginia by a 56.5% to 43.5% margin. Danville residents cast their ballots in opposition to that question by 51.9% to 48.1% (5,954 “no” votes to 5,521 in favor).

To bring the pooled wagering to Danville, there has to be a local voter referendum before such a facility can come to the community. Virginia law requires this of all localities that have not already approved pari-mutuel wagering in their community.

Danville resident Trina McLaughlin, who submitted the paperwork for the referendum with the Danville Circuit Court Clerk’s Office last month, said the city has new voters that will put the question in favor of pari-mutuel betting.

“The face of the city pretty much has changed,” McLaughlin said, adding there also is a younger population of voters.

Colonial Downs Group, which owns the Colonial Downs horse race track in New Kent County, submitted paperwork in the city last month to put a referendum before voters in November to allow off-track, pari-mutuel betting at a satellite facility in Danville. The company intends to open in Rosie’s Gaming Emporium, which has locations in New Kent County and Vinton.

Hubbard said gaming is different now as opposed to three decades ago. It now includes electronic horse racing gaming machines, he said.

Colonial Downs intends for the Danville satellite site to be a Rosie’s Gaming Emporium, a gaming facility it runs in New Kent County and Vinton.

“Those are the exact same platforms we’re hoping to bring to Danville,” Hubbard said.

If voters were to approve pari-mutuel betting in the city and a site were located here, the project would bring about 150-200 jobs with an average annual salary of $40,000 plus benefits, Hubbard said last month.

If built in Danville, Rosie’s Gaming Emporium would include two types of betting — historic horse racing involving simulated, video-game-like horse races in which players bet on a chosen horse and satellite betting on real-life horse races taking place elsewhere.

What Colonial Downs is proposing is different from a casino, which has card games like blackjack and poker with players betting against the house.

Henry County also voted against the 1987 ballot question — by a much wider margin — by a vote of 8,024 votes against to 5,787 yes votes (58.9% to 41.1%). But residents there passed a local referendum to allow pari-mutuel betting facilities in 2004, with 9,829 yes votes to 9,204 against (51.6% to 48.4%) — a 625-vote difference, Deputy County Administrator Dale Wagoner said.

Shortly after that vote, Colonial Downs bought a facility in Ridgeway and opened an off-track betting establishment in 2005, Wagoner said. It closed in 2014 because of a contract dispute between Colonial Downs and the Virginia Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

“In March 2018, an off-track betting site opened in Collinsville,” Wagoner said, referring to the Windmill Off Track Betting & Sports Grill. “It is still operating today.”

In order for a local referendum to appear on Danville’s ballot, at least 5% of qualified voters’ signatures must be collected. They must be submitted to and certified by the registrar by Aug. 16, and the local circuit court must officially decree the question will appear on the ballot.

Crane reports for the Register & Bee. He can be reached at (434) 791-7987.

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Crane reports for the Register & Bee. He can be reached at (434) 791-7987.

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