New Form of Horse Betting Is Pushed to Fund Projects

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007

Virginia legislators might decide that horses can help resolve congestion on state highways.

Colonial Downs, which offers betting on horse races at 10 sites across Virginia, is pushing for changes in state law so that it can offer a new form of gambling, called historical racing, on which people wager on horse races that have already taken place.

If approved by the General Assembly, Colonial Downs officials say, the electronic games would bolster the state's horse racing industry and result in hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue that would be used for transportation projects across the state.

"I think it is a logical progression of gaming in Virginia," said Ian M. Stewart, president of Colonial Downs. "Given we have a need for transportation money, I think we can do the same thing for transportation that the lottery did for education."

But gambling opponents say Colonial Downs, which has struggled to turn a profit since opening in 1997, is trying to trick legislators into approving slot machines.

"You have these historical races, but you can play them as fast as slot machines, so it's equally as addictive," said David Robertson, past chairman of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. "It's just a sneaky way to get a slot machine."

In historical gambling, which is also called instant gaming, customers would put as little as a nickel and as much as $5 into a video terminal that resembles a slot machine. The terminal randomly selects a race from an archive of at least 10,000 previous horses races from tracks around the country. Customers review a graphic showing the odds and statistics for each horse before deciding which one to bet on.

The race appears on the monitor. If the chosen horse wins, the patron will receive a payout based on the odds, how much was bet and that day's purse.

Frank Petramalo Jr., executive director of the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association,disagrees with the comparison to slot machines, which have become entangled in the debate over the social effects of gambling.

"Slot machines are 100 percent random. It's chance," said Petramalo, whose group is lobbying for the bill. "Instant racing really does involve some skill in the sense you are being asked to handicap races that have already occurred."

The first instant gaming machines appeared six years ago at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., where they are credited with a big increase in business. "For all practical purposes, it saved this track," said Eric Jackson, manager of the Oaklawn Jockey Club.

In Virginia, Colonial Downs faces significant hurdles in its effort to install the games. Even though the state made $400 million from the lottery last year, Virginia historically has been averse to most forms of legalized gambling.

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