Members of the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee voted favorably on two of Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s nominees to a recently unified territorial horse racing commission Friday.
If approved by the full Senate, Henry Eugene Schjang, a former inspector for the V.I. Casino Control Commission, and Ronald A. Phillips, a chemical engineer who said he has been involved with horse racing on St. Croix since the late 1960s, will join the V.I. Horse Racing Commission.
The territory’s two district horse racing commissions were merged into one in December 2017 as part of a Mapp-proposed plan to better regulate and capitalize off the sport in the Virgin Islands. Around the same time, an anti-doping law was signed in the V.I. that brings the territory in line with other jurisdictions where horse racing is popular.
The new laws governing horse racing augment a franchise agreement ratified in 2016 with local casino operator VIGL, who has pledged $27 million to expand and modernize the racetracks on St. Thomas and St. Croix. The territory also changed its laws to allow slot machines at the St. Thomas track and gave VIGL the right to open slot machine parlors at the St. Thomas track and take over the parlor at the St. Croix track.
The V.I. Horse Racing Commission, whose duty it is to create and enforce regulations for the sport, sits under the Department of Sports, Parks and Recreation and will have eight members once all its vacancies are filled. In June, Mapp nominated six potential members to the commission: Schjang, Phillips, Ian Samuel, Sheldon Turnbull, Jay Watson and Dr. Laura Palminteri.
At a hearing on St. Croix Friday, the nominations of Schjang and Phillips were vetted, with little controversy arising. Senators said they found both nominees to be qualified and prepared. Watson’s nomination was also on the agenda for the day, but he was not present and the matter was not brought to the floor.
Of the two nominees, Scjhang, who has a B.A. in business administration and is currently a police department recruiter, claimed to know less about horse racing, although he said he had family members who worked in the industry. He said his 17 years spent as a casino commission inspector would be an asset on the commission since the territory’s new ‘racinos’ will include expanded electronic gambling.
Schjang said one of the first things he would want to establish is “a public awareness campaign on the dangers of gambling addiction and where to get help.” He said this should be implemented and operational before the first race at the new tracks.
He also said his business and accounting background will help with the financial reporting on the sport the commission is mandated to produce.
On some of the ‘hot-button’ issues surrounding the sport, Scjhang said he is still learning.
“The antidoping measures included in Act 8020 were not met with a resounding round of applause, and there were some in our community who had concerns,” he said. “It would be deceitful of me to sit before you and indicate that I am completely aware of the challenges brought forward and have a complete grasp of ‘doping’ in the horse racing industry. What I can sit before you and pledge to you is that I am willing to put in the work.”
Phillips, an engineer with the V.I. Waste Management Authority, said in his testimony he has decades of institutional knowledge of the horse racing industry in the V.I. and an interest in the regulatory side of the sport.
“Over the years, I have read and studied the rules and regulations of the Virgin Islands Horse Racing Commission, and I concluded that the rules are very good. The overall issue from my perspective is enforcing the rules,” said Phillips.
When asked by Sen. Jean Forde what he would do to better enforce regulations, Phillips said the first step would be to make sure everyone involved in the industry receives a written copy of all the sport’s regulations. V.I. Code allows for actual enforcement to be done in partnership with the VIPD.
Phillips said he had several ideas for the commission, including: aligning V.I. purse award standards with those of New York; meeting with paddock stewards and gate handlers during race days to ensure ‘post parades’ occur; working with promoters to put an end to illegal betting; and enforcing a 30 minute pre-race deadline for horses to be in the paddock.
At the hearing Sen. Kurt Vialet, who attended but is not a member of the Rules Committee, reminded nominees that “the regulatory component is what the commission is about, and not the actual running of the races.”
All Rules and Judiciary Committee members present – Sens. Forde, Novelle Francis Jr., Sammuel Sanes and Janelle Sarauw – voted to send the nominations of Schjang and Phillips on to the full senate.
Committee members Sens. Myron Jackson, Janette Millin Young, and Positive Nelson were absent.