There won’t be any horse racing (or even training of race horses) in the U.S. Virgin Islands for the forseeable future — at least not until issues between the USVI government and the territory’s two major gaming operators are resolved, and restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic are relaxed or lifted.
That was the message delivered by an official with St. Croix-based VIGL Operations LLC to questions from members of the V.I. Horse Racing Commission during its monthly meeting Friday, held online due to the virus outbreak.
“As it stands right now, we’re still in the same status as we were March 21 of this year,” said Lance Griffith, VIGL Operation LLC’s vice president chief operating officer. “We’ve had numerous meetings with the government, giving them different options, but as of this point, we still do not have any path forward. That’s the current update.”
The present situation began with the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak, which forced USVI officials in late March to impose “stay at home” orders on nonessential workers, which closed down businesses and even construction projects.
Among the businesses affected were VIGL’s resorts and casinos on St. Croix, which Griffith told the Horse Racing Commission have been open for only 23 days — and only at half-capacity due to pandemic regulations — in the past five months.
“On March 21, we shut down all of our operations, along with the operations of all of our operating entities,” Griffith said. “At this time, it’s still not economically feasible for us to open the track up for training. … We’ve had numerous conversations on those situations, and offered numerous solutions to that, but none of them have been taken.
“As it stands right now, we’ve been shut down for 147 days, and allowed to operate in our casino operations for only 23. But the reopening and re-closing during that time essentially lost us money to do that.”
Then, on April 10, U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Gomez agreed with St. Thomas-based Southland Gaming in its federal lawsuit against the V.I. government that its Video Lottery Terminal machines “are interchangeable, and in many cases are in fact identical” to the video slot machines operated by VIGL Operations.
That essentially nullified the $27 million agreement signed in late 2016 by then-Gov. Kenneth Mapp with VIGL to rebuild and operate the territory’s race tracks — Randall “Doc” James Race Track on St. Croix and Clinton E. Phipps Race Track on St. Thomas — as well as open “racinos” at the two facilities.
According to Horse Racing Commission chairman and St. Thomas representative Hugo Hodge Jr., he has yet to receive any legal guidance from the Attorney General’s Office concerning the lawsuit. “I hope to receive some guidance shortly, but as such, because it’s a pending legal matter, we wouldn’t be able to speak about it,” Hodge said.
Phipps Race Track has essentially been rebuilt, save for the grandstand areas and stables, and had been used by St. Thomas horse owners for training until the pandemic shutdown. However, work was still ongoing on the racing surface at James Race Track, which had been expanded to a one-mile track.
Workers were preparing to put down the new surface — combining the current surface with nearly 6,000 cubic yards of new material — before the shutdown.
There was some good news: Griffith said that VIGL Operations had finally received all approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the work being done at James Race Track, with the final approval coming July 22. The FAA approvals were required due to the track’s proximity to Rohlsen Airport.
“We got the first approvals in the first of July, and then it went on through most of July in different fashions,” Griffith said.
But until the other issues are resolved, Griffith said reopening the race tracks — even for training — was a non-starter to VIGL Operations.
“If the government wishes to take the tracks back over, they’re more than welcome to do that,” Griffith said. “We’ve even offered in current meetings if they wanted to utilize the existing surface that we have — the pre-existing and the new surface that we imported — they’re welcome to utilize that.
“But at this point, we have no way to move forward that is economically feasible for us in light of the lawsuit that is still pending, and the current status of the coronavirus shutdowns.”