Next to a West Broad Street car dealership at the Henrico-Richmond line, Colonial Downs’ once-bustling off-track betting site has plenty of empty bar stools and dozens of machines waiting to take your money.
Horse racing officially left Virginia at the end of October, when the New Kent County track’s ownership returned its license to the Virginia Racing Commission following years of disagreement with horse owners about how often they should race.
While the impact has been felt across the state, including among horse breeders and hay producers, Richmond has seen dozens of jobs disappear at the betting parlor.
But even while the track sits empty, its future in doubt, Colonial Downs’ Richmond facility has customers. The company maintains a foothold in the burgeoning online horse-betting industry, and the parlor built to hold hundreds of people can expect a few dozen to filter in every day to place bets on harness races across the country.
“I’m still getting calls, ‘Are you still open?’” manager Paulette Coleman says. The answer is yes.
Coleman, who’s worked for Colonial Downs for 18 years, has watched the industry go online and leave much of the social interaction of betting parlors behind. Dozens of teller desks now hold computer terminals. A place that once employed dozens now includes her, a bartender and a cook.
State law forbids thoroughbred betting without a track within the Commonwealth, which means that after Colonial Downs ended racing in November, Coleman’s site offers the same betting that’s available on smart phones. But nothing replaces the excitement of betting among friends, Coleman says.
“People could sit at home and bet,” Coleman says. “They come in here for the camaraderie and the fellowship. They can come in and have fun, scream for horses, have a beer or two.”
Richmond resident Robin Boulware was recently retired when the West Broad site opened 19 years ago. It’s become her living room. And that’s the way forward for the company’s three remaining parlors in Chesapeake, Hampton and Richmond, a spokesman says — wooing those who otherwise would bet from home.
“The plan is to increase the vibrancy here,” says Darrell Wood, communications director for Colonial Downs. “We’re still trying to educate people that we’re not closed.”
The challenge is doing it while adrift from the closed facility that once served as its anchor. “That’s the unknown right now,” Wood says.
While Coleman and Boulware say they hope to see racing back at Colonial Downs, horse owners are counting on removing the de facto monopoly it had on racing in the state.
Jeb Hannum, interim executive director of the newly formed Virginia Equine Alliance, says horse owners are looking at four possible locations for racing next year.
“What we’ve decided to do is take a parallel track,” Hannum says. “We feel it’s important to move forward and establish additional racing opportunities. Virginia has such a wonderful racing heritage in the state. You have the horsemen, you have the land, you have all the ingredients for success. But we need to build up the opportunity for participation.”
For the moment, that means Colonial Downs has been left behind. And while Coleman sees uncertainty ahead, she says the only thing she can think about is what’s unfolded. “Lots of people have lost their jobs,” she says. “A beautiful track has gone to nothing.”
Boulware, watching a wall of flat-screen televisions intently, joined four others in letting out exasperation at their loss when horses crossed the finish line. The race was in New York. S