May 22, 2002 – A new look for the dilapidated Clinton E. Phipps Race Track on St. Thomas is just a few lengths away, if lease and franchise agreements passed by the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday make it through the legislative process and up to Government House for signature.
Senators were enthusiastic about a proposed 20-year lease agreement by the V.I. Horse Racing Commission and the St. Thomas-St. John Racing Commission with EQUUS-St. Thomas Racing and EQUUS-St. Thomas Racing Inc. (E-STRI).
Thomas Wilson, president of E-STRI, represents EQUUS, a Virginia-based company which has interests in racing throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America, including a 99 percent interest in El Comandante Race Track in Puerto Rico.
Ira Hobson, Housing Parks and Recreation commissioner, also greeted the proposed agreements with pleasure. "It's been a long-fought battle to finally bring a lease agreement that will help improve the Phipps Race Track and the horse-racing industry on St. Thomas," he said. Improvements, he added, are "essential, so that horse-racing enthusiasts will enjoy going to the track."
Wilson said that E-STRI intends to "create an environment and purse structure which will improve the horse-racing product on St. Thomas.
Sens. Donald "Ducks" Cole and Carlton Dowe praised the race track on Tortola, and Cole urged Wilson to build something "becoming" to the people of the territory. Wilson said his corporation is planning to build a structure similar to the Tortola track.
Several horse owners and racing enthusiasts, including Gene Weeks, Rudy Clarke and James Maduro, expressed their support for the agreement. Maduro urged the senators to look into funds for drugs, such as the commonly used Lasix, for the horses, warning that this could be very expensive.
Wayne Crooke, vice president of the St. Thomas Horse Owners Association, told the senators that the package negotiated with E-STRI is "a positive note in the right direction." He said the association would bring "great changes" to horse racing in the territory, including basic improvements to the existing structure.
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. said he hopes that once E-STRI receives its 20-year lease, it will "move quickly" to improve operations at the track instead of focusing on simulcast activities, which will provide most of the track revenues. Wilson said that was his plan.
The committee chair, Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, expressed reservations about rushing to get the lease passed quickly. "Although the race track is in such a deplorable state, and anything will be better, we should have been a little bit prudent in getting a better deal for the horse owners," she said. "However," she added, "since the horse owners, who are directly affected by the lease/franchise agreement, support it, I will support it."
In answer to questions, Wilson said he expects initially to realize a gross income of about $300,000 to $350,000 a month, with this eventually increasing to $500,000, and that he anticipates hiring 99 percent local labor, which is EQUUS's policy in other locations.
Construction on the race track should be completed six months after the
lease is signed, Cole said, pledging quick Senate action on the agreement. "I guarantee, no later than Thursday it will be out of here," he said. The Legislature is meeting in full session Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Normally, the lease would go through the Rules Committee, but it could be special ordered to the floor, bypassing that process.
The lease was approved on a 4-0 vote by Sens. Cole, Dowe, Hansen and Norma Pickard-Samuel. The franchise was approved on a 6-0 vote by Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., Cole, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Dowe, Hansen and Pickard-Samuel. Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste was absent. Sens. Adelbert Bryan and White, who are not members of the committee, also attended the meeting.
Earlier in the day the Senate chambers had been filled with a mature activity as senior citizens took over the chambers to debate the public transit needs of older persons.
A Planning and Natural Resources Department application for a federal grant of $346,989 for the V.I. Historic Preservation Office, the first item on the Finance Committee agenda, was postponed because DPNR Commissionere Dean Plaskett failed to appear, instead sending representatives. Hansen said she would subpoena him for a future meeting.
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