Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Commonwealth Stud: Can Virginia follow European lead to restore its breeding business?

Virginia's thoroughbred breeding business is in sharp decline.

I've noticed. The Washington Post has noticed. Certainly Glenn Petty, executive director of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association, has noticed.

I have an idea for spurring the industry with a stallion stakes series, similar to Maryland Million Day or any number of other states' efforts to promote breeding in their state via premium restricted races. Petty has a different idea.

He thinks Virginia should follow the well-established lead of England and Ireland and establish a "national" stud.

Petty is of the mind that Virginia is so handicapped by Colonial Downs' relatively short meeting, lack of sufficient off-track betting locations, and better incentive programs in nearby states (namely West Virginia and Pennsylvania) that maintaining any significant private commercial breeding interest is impossible.

"Enter the government," Petty told me in an e-mail last August.

Petty said he has "developed a plan for a National Stud" that would couple a commercial stallion operation with "an educational component" at Virginia Tech University, which long has operated the Middleburg Agriculture and Research Center, first for cattle research, but rededicating the facility to equine study in 1992.

Virginia's "national stud" (or "commonwealth stud," perhaps more appropriately) would be "modeled after the national studs in England and Ireland," Petty said. That would suggest that the facility would maintain a respectable roster of stallions, provide boarding and foaling facilities for private mare-owners, and perhaps perform other services such as sales-prep or boarding horses on layup.

"There is no private funding for such an endeavor" due to the aforementioned issues facing Virginia, which limit the profitability of a large stallion operation, Petty said. "But people agree it could work over time if subsidized."

Petty explains that the state of Virginia receives 1.7 percent of every traditional wager on horse racing in the state, and 0.5 percent of each advance-deposit wager. Out of those funds, the Commonwealth of Virginia Racing Commission must operate its "shop," Petty says -- that's pay for its entire staff, licensing process, drug-testing, stewards and so forth. Then the VRC must return a "surplus" $800,000 to the Virginia General Fund.

"Surplus" is an interesting word the commonwealth's General Assembly has co-opted in this case. Truth be told, the government wants $800,000 from the VRC's budget before anything else is paid and regardless how much the VRC collects from the 1.7/0.5 percent shares on wagers.

"Actually, the (General Assembly) requires them to pay the $800,000 up front," said Petty about the VRC, "so they'd better get their budget right!"

Since wagering began in Virginia, Petty said, the industry has returned more than $7 million to the commonwealth's General Fund.

Trouble is, over the course of more than a decade, that really isn't a lot of money for running the entire commonwealth. Petty believes -- rightfully, I would add -- that the funds would be better-spent in the hands of the racing industry, to promote its own growth and development, generating tax revenues for the commonwealth through sales, higher property values and job creation.

"I've got kids in public school, so I'm a fan of the General Fund and the school buses it buys and the roads it paves," Petty wrote. "But imagine what the $7 million could have done if applied to programs like the one you suggest or to a Virginia National Stud?"

Indeed, the $800,000 the Virginia General Assembly siphons-off from wagering each year is a drop in the state's budget bucket, but would more than fully fund the stallion stakes series I recommended or could greatly subsidize Petty's plan for a commonwealth-run stud.

Petty says that support for his ideas has been voiced.

"Everybody sees the logic of my request and the merit of the projects this money could support," he says.

But the roadblocks to reclaiming those funds for industry use have proven impossible, thus far, to clear.

"Nobody is willing to advocate giving this money back," Petty said.

"I have asked the General Assembly for years to give us back all or some of this money. I spent all last summer visiting members in their homes and I have had two high-level meetings with the governor's office about this, plus one with the secretary of commerce and trade (he oversees the VRC) and one with the secretary of agriculture.

"Nothing. Zip."

I just hope Virginia's General Assembly is pleased with its work when those two words are all that's left of the commonwealth's thoroughbred breeding business.


  1. There is just soooo much to respond to and unfortunately, the decline of the thoroughbred/race industry and it's microcosm that is the VA industry can't be resolved with the input of just Craven, Petty and a nobody like me. I'll start with the obvious. There is no way in hell that those in Richmond will willing give that money back (or share, for that matter) to the VA horse industry. Face it. They don't care. Factor in the money required to own a horse, the economy, cost of maintaining rural real estate, tax code and an antiquated blue-law mentality for many reps in is screwed in VA. A better question for me is, of the top performers (owners, breeders) based in Virginia, what do they think? Better yet, what do they do? I know...they breed and train/race almost entirely out of State. We couldn't even get a license plate in honor of Secretariat because it failed to get the minimum number of advance orders (a measely 300, I think). Isn't the Horse Center in Lexington struggling? As to a Commonwealth Stud, wouldn't that be tied to purses? Wouldn't that require cooperation among adjoining states? Wouldn't that require extending the racing at CD? Sorry, but I don't see that happening. What I'm saying is that you'll find no majority support from Richmond or surrounding racing jurisdictions. It's going to be hard to bring the TB race game with it's associated breeding/ownership with it's former glory back to the Old Dominion for several reasons. Richmond is just one reason. The one thing that has some glimmer of hope is the point-to-point, steeplechase and sport horse area; very user friendly and a good day of sporting for all, albeit low-key.

    Best of luck on your quest.

  2. The Lexington Horse Center is for all breeds and is for show horses. They actually do very brisk business and are subsudised by a self-imposed tax levied by the local hotels.

    As to the question on hand, we kinda already do have a "State stud." Its called Virginia Tech. They stand the best TB stallions in Virginia and guess what, its closed to the outside world.


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