The annual Virginia Gold Cup races have long been a rite of spring, drawing some 50,000 fans into Great Meadow each May.
This May 4, Gold Cup gets a potential shot of adrenalin with the addition of live betting.
On Jan. 16, the Virginia Racing Commission approved a pari-mutuel application from the Gold Cup that will allow wagering, previously illegal under state and local code.
Tapping into a little-known clause in state code that allows pari-mutuel gambling at single-day, charity events, the event in The Plains is adding a new wrinkle that could redefine Virginia horse racing, according to officials. Gold Cup bettors will use modern Internet account technology to make their bets.
Previously, local jurisdictions had to conduct a referendum to allow pari-mutuel betting, something that dashed hopes of a track in horse-rich Loudoun County in the 1990s, and something that has curtailed the expansion of racing around the commonwealth. Until now.
âPari-mutuel wagering is coming to Great Meadow,â said Virginia Gold Cup President Will Allison. âThis increases our value to horsemen because of increased purse money, and to fans, because of the ‘handle’ that will be generated by an opportunity to play the races.
âWe’re acting as a model. I think this is a huge advance for horse racing,” he said.
It was nearly by accident that a little-known clause buried in state code was discovered, making the pari-mutuel option viable for Gold Cup.
Donna Rogers, who helped establish the old Morven Park Races in Leesburg that offered Virginia’s first-ever pari-mutuel event â âlimited licenseâ one-day events in 1991 and ’92 â was brainstorming with Allison recently about how to invigorate horse racing.
She recalled that the Virginia Racing Commission (VRC) allowed for âcharity eventsâ such as Gold Cup to hold pari-mutuel license without local referenda.
Together, Rogers and Allison unearthed what they consider the key, to perhaps unlimited growth, in Virginia racing.
Written in 1996, Code 59.1-378.1 states in part that âthe Commission may grant a licenseâ¦to the operator of a steeplechase facility for the purpose of conducting pari-mutuel wageringâ¦provided that the facility is sanctioned by the Virginia (or) National Steeplechase Association, andâ¦has been granted tax-exempt status under 501(c)3 or 501(c)4.â
The language allows up to 14 days of racing at any given facility, and up to 12 licenses in a calendar year.
Translation: a charitable facility such as Great Meadow could run up to 14 one-day meets (they currently host two â spring and fall Gold Cups), as could as many as 11 other 501(c)3 race hosts such as Morven Park and Oatlands in Leesburg as well as Montpelier near Orange.
âDown the road, we see great opportunity,â Allison said.
âBettingâ at Gold Cup will look nothing like the racetrack, with clerks and white tickets.
Nor will it resemble the portables wheeled in at Morven Park. It won’t even look like Virginia racing of old, when bookmakers set up placards and old-fashioned but colorful âtic-tac menâ with bright white gloves using archaic symbols and gestures to communicate odds and lure players.
Gold Cup with legal betting will look exactly like Gold Cup without it.
âIt just raises our game,â said Mike Pearson, a lifelong racing horseman and licensed flat track steward who is consulting on the project.
âThe only change will be in the security of the stable area and paddock, really. Otherwise, nothing will change.â
How will betting work?
Gold Cup will choose from between two tote companies, EZ Horseplay and United Tote.
EZ Horseplay is the advanced deposit wagering division of Colonial Downs, Virginia’s only pari-mutuel track. EZ Horseplay uses a secure, closed-loop Internet-based system accessed by an individually-assigned account number.
Open only to Virginia residents, players can open an account on a self-service kiosk located in restaurants and clubs around the state, including the Blackthorne Inn in Upperville.
Once registered, players can access their account via telephone, personal computer, wireless device or terminal.
EZ Horseplay customers can watch races from all over the world on their personal computers or wireless devices, or at Horseplay terminals, as well as receive payout on winning bets either in cash at terminals or have it placed directly on Horseplay accounts.
United Tote, created in 1959 and acquired by Kentucky’s Churchill Downs in 2010, supplies pari-mutuel wagering products and services for more than 150 racing companies and off-track betting facilities around the globe. United Tote integrates network communications, product distribution (through telephone, smart phone and self-serve account systems.)
Pearson said a sign serving notice that âYou are entering the jurisdiction of the Virginia Racing Commissionâ is the only visible change to spring Gold Cup.
âWhen people begin to wager on races, we must be exactly correct,â he explained.
Every official, every horseman, even every groom, must be licensed by the VRC. The stable area, Allison added, previously loosely guarded and open to friends and families of owners, will be enclosed and rigorously secure. âAny possible misconduct has to be protected against,â he said.
Maryland’s Fair Hill is currently the only American jump meet with pari-mutuel wagering. Maryland licensing rules are different than Virginia’s.
Leesburg’s Morven Park won the commonwealth’s first pari-mutuel license and held betting meets in 1991 and ’92, but Rogers said the cost was prohibitive, and overall handle did not increase the purse structure.
Colonial Downs, which holds Virginia’s only pari-mutuel license for a race meet, offered the one-day Strawberry Hill Races in 2011 and ’12, but will not be held this spring.
âI am thrilled that Gold Cup will [be able] to conduct pari-mutuel wagering this spring,â said Rogers. âIt is a new revenue stream for steeple chasing with rich potential to invigorate the sport here in Virginia.
âAdvanced digital and wireless technologies allow for multiple options for wagering that were not available when Morven Park conducted the first pari-mutuel horse racing in Virginia.â
Results from the Morven meet were mixed. Though attendance increased slightly, from 8,000 to 10,000, per capita wagering was a dismal $5 in 1992.
Pearson said that the convenience of account wagering on a hand-held device, plus virtual âformâ available online, in real time, from Equibase and the Daily Racing Form, should make intelligent, well-considered betting far more viable.
âAll you’ll see is a tower at the top of the Summer House,â Allison added. âIt will broadcast a closed system signal you can get onto to make your bets. It’s amazing technology. We see this as the future.â
Virginia voters authorized horse race betting in 1988; Colonial Downs won a spirited application battle from five contenders and opened in 1997.