It’s been more than four years since the last horse races were held on either of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ two race tracks.
However, the holding pattern the territory’s horse owners and race fans have been in may be coming to an end — but not anytime soon, and not for all.
VIGL Operations LLC has been granted a temporary permit to resume operations at the Randall “Doc” James Race Track on St. Croix beginning next week, officials announced during Thursday’s virtual meeting of the Virgin Islands Horse Racing Commission.
Calvert White, commissioner of the V.I. Sports, Parks and Recreation Department and a de facto member of the Horse Racing Commission, informed the other HRC commissioners that VIGL had been granted its temporary permit earlier Thursday, set to go into effect Aug. 2.
That comes after the V.I. Justice Department signed off on an amended franchise agreement signed June 2 between the V.I. Government and VIGL, which also operates the Caravelle Hotel and Casino on St. Croix. The V.I. Justice Department signed off on amendments to the agreement July 7, and was approved by VIGL shortly after.
“Myself, commissioner [Anthony] Thomas [of the Department of Property and Procurement] and [VIGL chief executive officer] Lance Griffith have signed off on that document, and all parties have a copy of that document,” White said.
However, the future of horse racing at Clinton E. Phipps Race Track on St. Thomas is still up in the air, as court-ordered negotiations between the V.I. government and St. Thomas-based Southland Gaming “are ongoing,” according to a monthly status report filed earlier this month by attorney Christopher Kroblin, representing Southland Gaming.
“As far as St. Thomas is concerned, there’s no agreement yet; there’s nothing to announce for that, correct?” Horse Racing Commission chairman Hugo Hodge Jr. asked White.
“I acknowledge that, Mr. Chair,” White said.
Southland Gaming filed a federal suit against both the V.I. government and VIGL in early 2017, not long after the V.I. Legislature had approved an agreement reached between VIGL and then-Gov. Kenneth Mapp allowing VIGL to operate “racinos” at both race tracks, as well as run all horse racing operations.
Last April, then-U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Gomez ruled in Southland Gaming’s favor, agreeing with the plaintiff that its Video Gaming Terminal machines “are interchangeable, and in many cases are in fact identical” to the video slot machines operated by VIGL on St. Croix.
After the V.I. government appealed, the parties have been in ongoing negotiations, making monthly status reports to current U.S. District Court Judge Robert Molloy.
The temporary permit and amended franchise agreement allows VIGL to resume construction and renovation work at James Race Track, some of which had already been completed or was close to completion before the lawsuit brought work to a halt.
“We had extended the track from seven furlongs to a full mile,” Griffith said. “We installed all new ‘breakaway’ railing on the track and we had started working on the existing barns — working on the roofs, putting all new electrical in, and we had surveillance in before we took it out.”
Among the major items that need to be completed at James Race Track, according to Griffith, are finishing mixing and grading the track surface, building new grandstands and facilities for the horse racing operations such as the control tower and jockey’s locker room, and finishing repairs on the horse barns.
While Griffith said that work at James Race Track “would take 18-24 months” in a June 2 press release by Government House announcing the amended franchise agreement, he would not put a timeframe on when racing could resume at the track during Thursday’s meeting with the Horse Racing Commission.
“I don’t really have an answer for you,” Griffith said. “We’re going to focus on getting the structures and everything built, so we don’t have to go back or have to have something stopped midway. We want to get these structures completed and out of the way so the public can enjoy the new facilities and the [horse racing] industry can really start taking hold.”