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Colonial Downs Re-Opens With Slot-Like Gaming

A customer plays a "historical horse racing" machine at Colonial Downs on Tuesday.
A customer plays a "historical horse racing" machine at Colonial Downs on Tuesday.

Colonial Downs re-opened on Tuesday with a burst of bugle and a surge of 500 people.

The only horses on hand were there for show, with the first of 15 races scheduled to begin on August 8. The main attraction right now is 600 so-called historical horse racing machines -- a healthy chunk of the 3,000 that will eventually fan out across the state.

The machines look and feel a lot like slot machines, but with outcomes tied to past horse races. Many early customers seemed to see little difference between the two.

“To me it looks and it feels exactly like a slot machine,” said Mary Malamala of Newport News. “I don’t understand what the horse race results mean, but I don’t care.”

Marcheta Foster of Richmond said she’d been “very anxious and excited” waiting for Colonial Downs to open.

“I like to play the slots,” she said.

Even Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-Williamsburg) conceded “some similarities” to slots after a short lived round of a game called Dead Man’s Bounty.

“It was a lot of fun, but it didn’t take me but five minutes to use all of my money,” Norment said.

Lawmakers passed legislation last year that allows the terminals, in a major departure to the state’s past aversion to anything gambling related. That legislation specifically targeted Colonial Downs, a horse-racing facility that opened in 1997 and closed in 2014 after struggling to turn a profit. The new owners said the machines were necessary to make the facility viable.

Casino operators see Colonial Downs and similar facilities as a sign the tide in the legislature may be turning in their favor. They’re pushing Norment and other lawmakers to loosen up the state’s other gambling laws, saying the state is losing out to revenue in other states.

“They’ve put a lot of money into it,” Norment said. “But just because they put a lot of money into it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for Virginia.”

Lawmakers will take up casinos and sports betting again next year, after the legislature’s nonpartisan watchdog, the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission, finishes its study of the issue this fall.

Norment and other lawmakers say Virginia’s conservative approach means it's unlikely to dive into casinos without seeing how the slot-like gaming works out first.

Del. Chris Peace (R-Mechanicsville) said he was wary of a proposal to put a casino in Richmond given its proximity to Colonial Downs.

“As a representative of New Kent, I was concerned about those types of activities taking place right here in Colonial Downs’ backyard,” Peace said.


Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.