Gambling Bill in Va. Closer to Passage

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2007

RICHMOND, Feb. 9 -- The Virginia General Assembly is moving closer to approving the largest expansion of gambling in more than decade under a plan that would allow customers at Colonial Downs to wager on "instant" horse racing machines.

The new form of video gambling, which is offered only in Arkansas, has emerged as a possible tool to help resolve the debate over how to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation projects across the state.

Although gambling legislation has prompted contentious, years-long debates in legislatures across the country, the proposal by Colonial Downs to install the racing terminals in Virginia is gliding through the General Assembly without much organized opposition.

The Senate voted 23 to 14 this week to approve the games, sending the bill to the House of Delegates, where lobbyists for Colonial Downs are working overtime to line up the nine additional votes they say they need to pass it.

"Sometimes it's all about timing," said Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News), a leading proponent of the legislation, which could raise as much as $300 million a year for transportation.

Gambling opponents say they are stunned that Virginia, a historically conservative state that has resisted gambling initiatives, could soon become a haven for people they say would want to bet almost nonstop on horse races. They are especially dismayed when they consider that legislators in Maryland, which has long been viewed as a more liberal state, have fought off attempts to put thousands of slot machines at racetracks.

"It came in under the radar because everyone is willing to swallow a lot of exhaust to get money for transportation. It's the road to ruin. It's just like a slot machine," said Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who thinks Colonial Downs "is taking advantage" of the stalemate over transportation funding.

If the measure is approved, Colonial Downs would install up to 11,000 terminals resembling video poker machines at its track near Richmond and nine off-track betting locations throughout Virginia.

The games, which are called historical racing, would be programmed with tapes of more than 10,000 horse races held over the past three decades at tracks across the country.

A customer could then put any amount from a nickel to $5 in the terminal, select a race, handicap it and pick a horse. The customer would watch the race -- either the whole thing or the last few seconds -- on the screen. If the selected horse wins, the customer would receive a payout.

It is nearly impossible for someone to know the outcome of one of the historical races because the identities of the race, the track and the participating horses are withheld until after the customer places the bet.

Keith S. Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said the games would introduce a highly addictive element into the racetrack experience. "You are able to zone out in front of a machine for hours," Whyte said.

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