Churchill Downs faces tough election night in Virginia

Company backed two failed referenda to expand its gambling operations in Richmond and Northern Virginia

By: - November 9, 2023 12:02 am

Gaming machines at Colonial Downs in New Kent County. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Tuesday was a tough night for Churchill Downs in Virginia. 

The multistate gaming and horse-racing company, best known for its ownership of the Churchill Downs racetrack where the Kentucky Derby is held, put millions of dollars this campaign season toward getting voters to back two ballot measures that would further expand its gambling operations in Virginia. 

If successful, one referendum would have allowed horse racing-themed slot machines in the city of Manassas Park, permission Churchill Downs needed to open its eighth Rosie’s Gaming Emporium in Virginia. Another would have approved the construction of a Richmond casino that would have been jointly owned by the company and media conglomerate Urban One. 

In support of those measures, Churchill Downs funneled over $5.7 million into Virginia campaigns. Most of that, $5.1 million, went to the Richmond Wins, Vote Yes PAC pushing for the Richmond casino, which city voters had rejected in a referendum two years ago. An additional $518,000 went to the Manassas Park efforts. 

“We’ve put a lot of time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears to winning the Richmond referendum because we believe that’s a huge market for brick and mortar gaming,” Churchill Downs Incorporated CEO Bill Carstanjen told investors on an Oct. 25 call

Richmond voters decisively reject casino in second referendum

But on Tuesday, voters decisively defeated both measures. Almost 59% of Manassas Park voters rejected the Rosie’s referendum, while almost 62% of Richmond voters nixed the casino project — a stark contrast to the 51%-49% split on the casino in 2021 when Urban One was the plan’s sole backer. 

Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, who is serving as vice chair of a subcommittee reviewing the state’s gambling regulations, said the votes could indicate Virginians are ready to slow down the rapid expansion of gambling that’s taken place over the last four years.

“I feel that we need to put a pause on expansion,” said Krizek. “And one of the reasons we need to do it is we don’t have a regulatory body that handles all of gambling yet.” 

Churchill Downs, which also owns Virginia’s Colonial Downs racetrack in New Kent County, didn’t respond to several requests for comment for this story. 

Krizek and the gambling subcommittee’s chair, Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg, are planning to propose a bill this winter that would require a three-year waiting period if a casino is put on the ballot and a locality’s voters reject it. The pair said the change would bring Virginia’s casino rules in line with state law governing referenda on horse racing machines like those considered in Manassas Park. 

“I don’t know of any referendums that don’t have language in there that don’t put a limit on how many times” they can occur, said Krizek. “It’s unfair to voters to keep coming back to the well every single year after year until you win.” 

Reeves also said he thought it would be “prudent” to enforce a hiatus on bringing casino proposals to voters. 

In Richmond, “the voters didn’t want it, but somehow they put it back up there,” he said. “Are you going to do that every year until they finally succumb to the will of the casinos? I don’t think that’s right. And I think when the voters speak as they have in this election, they need to honor that.” 

While Virginia tightly limited the forms of gambling residents could engage in for years, the General Assembly in 2018 began to loosen its restrictions, allowing historical horse racing machines and two years later legalizing online sports betting and the construction of casinos in five cities, including Richmond, if voters endorsed them in a referendum. 

Krizek called the casino law’s lack of a time limit for those referenda “an oversight.” 

“I don’t think anybody anticipated that a locality would say no to it,” he said.


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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.