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A Henrico yardman wages a long-odds fight against the management of Colonial Downs.

Dark Horse


Tad Berman sat in his car in the rain near the clotted exit to the Strawberry Hill Races at Colonial Downs.

It wasn't at all like the trips he had taken growing up in Tidewater, fast weekend trips with his father and uncle to tracks in Maryland, West Virginia and points beyond. Trips where bets were placed on behalf of "old-time bookmakers" in the family. Trips like the one to Belmont in 1973, where they cheered when Secretariat's world-record time was posted.

Instead, Berman's trip last month to Colonial Downs was a bust, not unlike his other recent efforts to get inside — literally and figuratively — Virginia's only pari-mutuel horse racing operation.

Berman and his dad loved horse racing. When they heard a betting track would be built in New Kent, the transplanted Richmonders rejoiced. In 1997 they pooled a couple of hundred dollars and bought a token 25 shares in the company.

Today, that stock is worth about as much as its frame, still hanging on Berman's living room wall.

Berman's dad, Fred, a former steel worker, died last June. But not before he and his son started obtaining and poring over documents about Colonial Downs' finances. And not before the younger Berman started challenging racetrack owner Jeffrey Jacobs at annual stockholders' meetings and made a futile run for a spot on the Jacobs-controlled Colonial Downs board of directors.

Berman says he and his dad found the reason why Colonial Downs' stock tanked less than two years after its initial offering and why the operation continues to lose money. And, not incidentally, why Virginia's horse racing industry continues to be controlled by out-of-state interests.

"Jacobs," Berman says, "has set this company up to drain it of every penny."

Sumpter Priddy is tired. The venerable lobbyist did not sleep well last night. His 75-year-old legs are stiff from stalking Capitol Square during the one-day General Assembly session last month, when legislators reconvened to respond to the governor's vetoes on bills they passed last winter.

Another winter, another spring: Priddy is tired, but he speaks with delight when he speaks about his latest lobbying protégé, a fellow who reminds him of his younger self. "He's a quick learner. The boy has a passion for what he's doing," Priddy says. "He tells you as he sees it."

The boy is Berman, a 39-year-old Henrico County yardman, former bouncer and lifelong horse racing fan. And what Berman tells you, in no uncertain terms, is that Colonial Downs is Jacobs' tool for draining millions of dollars out of Virginia and leaving its horse racing industry in a state of perpetual servility at the hands of Colonial Downs' Maryland Jockey Club management. He tells you that while Colonial Downs loses money on paper, in reality it is making a mint for a developer with casino and baseball team holdings who doesn't give a whiff about Virginia or its horse people.

Some of those people — the Virginia Horsemen's Association — approached Berman late last year about representing them to the legislature, primarily to get more racing days at Colonial Downs. So Berman approached Priddy.

The venerable lobbyist agreed to show him the ropes, walk him around the capitol. "I've always taken the hands of anyone [wanting to learn] the legislative process," Priddy says. And in this case, he happened to support Berman's cause: getting Colonial Downs to do right by Virginia, particularly its horsemen.

But Priddy is still a venerable lobbyist. He is discreet. And this is "the boy's" fight. So all he says is, "I don't feel that our horsemen have gotten a pretty fair shake."

Berman claims that six Jacobs subsidiaries described in an independent consultant's report for the Virginia Racing Commission last year — everything from financing and consulting services firms to a concessions company — are milking Colonial Downs dry, and that increasing the number of off-track betting parlors that Jacobs operates in Virginia — profitable mini-casinos where players bet exclusively on out-of-state horse races most of the year — is his only real aim.

To Ian Stewart, president of Colonial Downs and Jacobs' right-hand man in Virginia, Berman's claims simply are not true — that the track's financing is "not as sinister and convoluted as Mr. Berman would like you to believe."

"All this nonsense he tells you about Jacobs siphoning off money is a bunch of bulls—," Stewart says, adding Jacobs has put millions of dollars of his own at stake to float the track's debt and keep Colonial Downs open.

"The track was designed to be supported by six off-track facilities," Stewart reminds. Today, Colonial Downs has gotten the local approval required to open only four such betting parlors, which Stewart says limits the funds needed to support racing at Colonial Downs. "Live racing is very expensive. We actually lose money, in general, with live racing," he says.

Even with an extension until 2005 on the state demand that Colonial Downs host 150 days of racing, Stewart says it would take at least 10 and probably closer to 20 off-track facilities to support the purses needed for a 150-day schedule. (Despite Berman's lobbying of the legislature and administration, Colonial Downs and the Virginia Racing Commission last month agreed to schedule only 32 days of thoroughbred racing and 40 days of harness racing at the track this year.)

Stewart says Colonial Downs will lose money again this year. Regardless of whether or how much that hurts Jacobs, Virginia Horsemen's Association President Mike Pearson says the low number of racing days has stymied growth of the state's racing industry — the breeders who are not idle-rich and have to make a living racing their horses; and the trainers, handlers, jockeys, walkers, grooms, veterinarians, blacksmiths and other Virginians who provide services based on racing days.

They've got nowhere near the promised 150 days, while, Pearson notes, the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs Colonial Downs' day-to-day operations, has a 50-year management contract.

Tad Berman sat in his car in the rain near the clotted exit to Colonial Downs.

He missed the Strawberry Hill Races; it's as good an analogy as any to his view of the development of Virginia's horse racing industry: "We were on our way and we got turned around."

But Berman's not backing off. And while his first stint lobbying has left him thousands in the hole ("I've to get out and powerwash a lady's house today to pay some bills"), he's intent.

"I've got a race under my belt," he says, referring to his first run at lobbying. "And I'm not walking in off the street next

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