Randall "Doc" James Racetrack

A zoning bill that clears the way for the expansion of the Randall “Doc” James Racetrack has cleared the V.I. Legislature and now awaits Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s signature. The horse racing facilities on both St. Thomas and St. Croix were heavily damaged in last year’s hurricanes.

Horse racing plans for St. Croix may have received a shot in the arm, but the resumption of horse racing in the territory is still an unknown.

The V.I. Legislature unanimously approved Bill 32-0299 — a zoning request made by VIGL, the company granted an exclusive franchise for the territory’s two horse tracks — during Wednesday’s legislative session.

The vote means the Randall “Doc” James Racetrack on St. Croix awaits a signature by Gov. Kenneth Mapp to grow to a full mile and potentially include veterinary facilities. Meanwhile, progress continues on work on the Clinton E. Phipps Racetrack on St. Thomas, where the Hurricane Irma-damaged grandstand has been taken down and removed.

However, officials with VIGL and the V.I. government are hesitant to estimate the time it will take for racing to resume, in part because of a large number of unknowns.

From the company’s side, unknowns include when the V.I. Horse Racing Commission will convene to lay out rules and regulations for horse racing in the territory, said VIGL Operations General Manager of Racing Jason Williams.

For example, the commission will establish practices for chain of custody for samples from horses slated to run; will identify the process for testing samples; and will define other rules and regulations.

The company previously had signed a one-day contract to run races for the Fourth of July, though those races ultimately never materialized, Williams said. However, training on the Phipps track resumed in August.

Williams said officials believe Carnival Races in 2019 are within the realm of possibility, and the company could use large festival tents to replace the grandstand, at least temporarily.

The company is eager to resume racing, and interest in the restart of racing his high, Williams said.

“I did not realize how many people are interested in horse racing,” he said. “I can’t go to the bank, I can’t go to the gas station without someone flagging me down and asking about racing.”

The rezoning will allow the company to expand from the current length, of about 7/8 of a mile, to a full mile, and would boost the St. Croix track’s stature, Williams said.

“A lot of the racetracks in the United States — the more recognizable ones, the more popular ones — are a mile and beyond,” he said.

For example, each of the tracks that make up the Triple Crown — Pimlico Park in Baltimore, Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., and Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. — are a mile or more.

Expansion was part of original discussions for the VIGL franchise.

“Just to solidify ourselves and our racetrack as one of the premier tracks in the Caribbean,” Williams said.

At the Phipps racetrack on St. Thomas, expansion would be more difficult, Williams said. Phipps is about 5/8 of a mile, or five furlongs in horse-racing parlance, Williams said.

“Extending the track would have resulted in us getting into the wetlands,” he said.

Wetlands construction requires approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, which permits all construction in the waters of the United States.

“We felt it would most likely not be approved,” Williams said. “Applying for a permit would take months and months.”

The grandstand removal at the Phipps track was the work of the Sports, Parks and Recreation Department, said Commissioner Pedro Cruz. Officials are optimistic that the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds will cover parts of the removal, Cruz said.

Cruz and Williams both pointed to hurricanes Irma and Maria as the reason for the delays, particularly related to the horse racing commission.

“The racing commission is not fully organized with all the members, but it’s in the process,” Cruz said. “One of the facts that delayed everything is the hurricanes.”

— Contact Brian O’Connor at 340-714-9130 or email boconnor@dailynews.vi.

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