Dec. 11, 2003 — EQUUS-St. Thomas Racing, Inc. is in danger of losing a contract to promote and hold horse races on St. Thomas after the company admitted being in default of almost every provision in the contract with the V.I. government.
At a public hearing of the Housing, Parks and Recreation Committee on Wednesday night, Luis de Prat, director of corporate development for EQUUS admitted the Puerto Rican company has not come up with the capital to make several required improvements to the race track because of financial problems.
EQUUS is currently in severe financial trouble, and owes almost $10 million in taxes and other payments due to the Puerto Rican government and other jurisdictions it promotes horse racing in. An Internet biography of de Prat gives the full name as Equus Entertainment Corporation and describes it as "a company based in San Juan, which operates three thoroughbred racetracks in Puerto Rico, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic." (See the Source's earlier story, "High hopes for horse racing run into hurdles" for more financial details.)
The race track in St. Thomas currently has no quarantine stables, no roof over the grandstands, no photo-finish camera, no veterinary center or holding barns, and only six stalls for horses — instead of the 20 stalls that were required to be finished by August of 2002 under the government contract.
Although the company has added bleachers and resurfaced the track, the company owes thousands of dollars to the St. Thomas Racing Commission in late fees and penalties — but the racing commission has made little to no efforts to hold meetings or obtain any late payments from the company.
Alvis Christian, general manager for St. Thomas Racing Inc., placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of EQUUS, who Christian says promised capital investment in the racetrack but failed to deliver.
"Funding, or the lack there of, has been a major problem," Christian said.
However, senators said both St. Thomas Racing and EQUUS have failed to live up to the contract, and called on the St. Thomas Horse Racing Commission to void the contract and find new promoters.
"This franchise lease is in total default," Sen. Celestino White said. "I am concerned about one thing: getting this lease voided."
While Sen. Carlton Dowe called for a "divorce" from the contract, White said the contract was not the business of the Legislature, but of the Horse Racing Commission, which is responsible for the contract.
Gilbert Comissiong, chair of the Horse Racing Committee, said the committee is aware that EQUUS-STRI is in violation of their contract, but has not taken any action because "we were trying to get some very specific information on that point so a decision could be made."
Some members of the committee fear that if the contract is voided and EQUUS is sent packing, few promoters would be willing to step in because of the large investment needed to upgrade the track's facilities and small profit from holding the races.
Andrew Williamson, a veterinarian on St. Thomas, said a horse that snapped its leg after winning a race on Oct. 5 was left in agony for up to 20 minutes before being euthanized because no veterinarian was on hand at the races — as required by St. Thomas Horse Racing Commission rules.
Williamson said that after meeting with other veterinarians on St. Thomas, all were "either unwilling or unable to attend" the races because of concerns about events that commonly occur at the track and because of busy schedules.
Some veterinarians from St. Croix, however, would be willing to travel to St. Thomas on race days if they were reimbursed for travel expenses and compensated for their time, Williamson told the committee.
The committee also voted to subpoena records from the St. Croix Horse Racing Commission, after allegations surfaced in a letter to senators alleging that some members of the Commission are paying themselves salaries from the horse racing improvement fund — which was designed to upgrade horse racing facilities.
The fund, which contained $700,000, only has $100,000 remaining as of Oct. 2 and senators are attempting to find out how that money has been spent.
Sen. Usie Richards was successful in gaining a subpoena to force the St. Croix Horse Racing Commission to turn over minutes of all meetings for the past five years, annual financial reports dating back to 1999, copies of all rules and regulations passed by the commission, and copies of all notices of violation issued to the V.I. Racing Corporation by the St. Croix Horse Racing Commission.
None of the members of the St. Croix commission attended Wednesday's hearing. Some were in Arizona attending a horse-racing symposium.
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