ST. THOMAS — It’s been just over three years since the traditional Carnival Week races have been held at the Clinton E. Phipps Race Track on St. Thomas, and just over two years since any races have been held at the track.
The owners and trainers of the islands’ racing horses apparently have waited long enough.
In a letter to Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., the members of the 33rd Legislature and the Horse Racing Commission — a letter that is also running as a full-page ad on Page 13 in today’s Daily News — the members of the Nadir Horse Owners and Trainers Association Inc. have asked why no progress has been made on resuming races at the track.
“It’s now more than three years since all of that,” the letter read, “and we are ‘stuck in the sand’ or as ADDIE SAYS ‘UP A CREEK WITHOUT A PADDLE.’ We have had no races since August of 2017. Tortola’s race track got damaged by a storm when some of our horses were up there for their August 2017 Carnival races and we had to return without running. Their track was damaged even more by the same two Hurricanes that hit us in September 2017. Nonetheless, Tortola has been having horse races, thanks largely to us shipping our horse up there to race, but not without problems.”
The letter is signed by 15 members of the association: Calvert Charleswell, LaQuan Charleswell, Heigel Farrell, Winston Harrigan, Gerald Industrious, Bernards Jube, Randolph Marks, Roy Mercer, Elvin Pemberton, Stephanie Potter, Rasheed St. Juste, Gregory Stevens, Ira Todman, Neal Thomas and Arturo Watlington.
In the letter, the association’s members also allege that little or no input was sought from them over the December 2016 agreement between the V.I. government and VIGL Operations LLC to develop and operate the territory’s two horse racing tracks and its associated trackside gambling operations.
“We write you to express concern and to see resolution of the problem referred to above,” the letter, sent June 21 and titled “Status of Horse Racing and Development of Clinton Phipps Track,” began. “In 2015 we heard talk ... we will have a new upgraded race track in St. Thomas. We saw certain people coming out meeting with some horse owners and others involved. Then we heard Governor Mapp announce that he made deal with a group to run our racetrack in 2016 and on December 1st of that year, the Legislature passed the deal.
“It was like no other horseracing bill or measure since all of the Horse Racing Commission members on St. Thomas/St. John, said Governor [Kenneth] Mapp never spoke to them, they knew nothing about the deal not were involved in any discussion/or negotiations regarding the bill that created the deal.”
The association also had issues with subsequent laws — as with the VIGL Operations deal, signed by Mapp — forming the unified V.I. Horse Racing Commission in December 2017 and “anti-doping” regulations in January 2018 (signed by then-Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter, since Mapp was out of the territory).
“Promises were made that we would get a new racing surface and the distance of the track expanded, so it could be recognized nationally,” the letter read. “There has been no expansion. We submitted a letter to the Governor questioning the logic of some of what we heard. That letter was ‘casted aside’ by him saying talk to the Senators. We heard all these people the Governor and Randy Knight [Gov. Mapp’s former chief of staff, and former chairman of the West Indian Co. governing board] brought in and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars telling us about ‘doping’ and how it had to stop in order for us to have ‘world class racing’ here. Our group submitted written comments on the ‘anti doping measure’ saying we are not drug dealers and our horses were not addicts or users. We even sent one of our members to St. Croix to give written and oral testimony. Our comments were ignored and the bill was passed without regards to our points.”
The resumption of horse racing in the U.S. Virgin Islands has met with one setback or another since hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the territory in September 2017, with repair work on both Phipps Race Track and St. Croix’s Randall “Doc” James Race Track coming in fits and starts.
The latest setback came last month, when officials with the V.I. Horse Racing Commission announced June 13 that there were problems with the materials used on the new racing surface at Phipps Race Track
According to commission chairman Jay Wright, tests conducted by Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory in Lexington, Ky., one of the world’s preeminent horse racing testing labs, showed that the materials used at Phipps Race Track was “not suitable for any type of horse racing surface.”
Jason Williams, VIGL Operations’ general manager of racing, said in reply to an email sent by The Daily News that day seeking comment that “Someone from VIGL will contact you in the not too distant future about the matter.” No comment has been received since then, with the association’s letter sent to Bryan’s office four days later.
“SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE AND WE NEED YOU TO FIX IT GOVERNOR,” the letter read. “We can go on and on with the problems, like no grandstand, no bathroom facilities, ‘just a porto pottie’ to ‘poo poo’ in out there at Clinton Phipps Race Track. Is this what our Government bargained for? Where is our Horse Racing Commission in all of this? DO WE HAVE MEMBERS IN THIS DISTRICT WHO CARE? The BVI don’t even have such body to oversee, but we are forced to support their cause if we want to continue to be involved at some extravagant costs to include travel and accommodation expenses. It’s so bad that some of our members have sold their horses in frustration and are raising chickens, planting vegetables and just waiting to see what will happen here. HOW LONG MUST WE WAIT?
“As a progressive place with government of young, resourceful, intellectuals and with a community of generations of horse racing people for well over ONE HUNDRED (100) YEARS, we can’t continue to blame the Hurricanes for these problems. VIGL got everything they asked for years ago but we haven’t benefited yet. We heard that after the Hurricanes, they told the Government to ‘tear down as part of the deal,’ our grandstand, even though it only lost some sheets of galvanize [steel], along with all the other existing buildings on the track and dig up all the concrete on the grounds.
“NOW, WHERE IS THE DEVELOPMENT PLAN? WHAT IS THE TIME TABLE FOR COMPLETION? When these questions are asked, as one of our members says, we are told ‘WAIT.’ We need action now. THREE YEARS WITHOUT OUR TRADITIONAL CARNIVAL HORSERACES IS UNACCEPTABLE. VIGL has made one unfulfilled promise after the other and it may be time to CHANGE COURSE NOW!!!
“Governor, we know you are dealing with many other pressing matters facing us, but we need you to address this situation and respond to us and the community. We thank you for your attention and await some action.”