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  • Heidi Smith

Seven Years Later, A Racetrack Rebirth Begins on St. Thomas

Horse racing began its comeback this week with a groundbreaking ceremony at the Clinton Phipps Racetrack on St. Thomas. Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and Lt. Gov. Tregenza Roach joined members of the 35th Legislature and executives from Southland Gaming for a Tuesday afternoon ceremony.

They gathered along with commissioners from Sports, Parks, and Recreation, and the Department of Agriculture, to reflect on the efforts to bring horse racing back. Both Clinton-Phipps on St. Thomas and the Randall “Doc” James Racetrack on St. Croix ceased operations due to damage brought on by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017.

Bryan thanked lawmakers and members of administrations, past and present, who worked step-by-step to get racetrack development moving again. But the governor cautioned those at the gathering by reminding them that much more effort is needed to see this project and one for the racetrack on St. Croix across the finish line.

Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett also came to Tuesday’s ceremony to applaud the efforts made so far.

“We have a long way to go. We’re counting on leadership from the Senate … St. Croix has to get done, too. We still don’t have the five million dollar appropriation; it expired. We’ve gotta go back and expand there because we’ve got to get the track done,” Bryan said.

On the day of the groundbreaking, mounds of dirt were heaped high a few feet from the gate at Clinton-Phipps. A row of rebar rods stretched towards the sky; part of the work to build a new grandstand. The only other structure standing was the stable, about 100 feet away.

About 90 days had passed since the permits allowing work to begin were received, said an informed source.

Drawings posted along the fence showed what Clinton-Phipps will look like once the work is done. A clubhouse sits a few steps away from the iron gate. About 200 feet to the north, a shaded grandstand faces the track.

St. Thomas horse owner Roy Mercer stood off to the side, watching as officials lined up behind 15 ceremonial shovels, tossing dirt at the end of the ceremony. Mercer said developers at first wanted to demolish the stable but were persuaded to let it remain until later.

Mercer is one of the local owners who still brings his horse to the track for exercise. He said he got his first racehorse at the age of 12, and used to walk from Smith Bay to Hospital Ground to enter his horse in competitions. Now, at the age of 78, Mercer said he hopes Clinton-Phipps will reopen while he still has racing days left in his life.

The idea of revitalizing the territory’s racetracks, and creating a sports tourism venue for St. Croix won the support of former Gov. Kenneth Mapp in 2016. At that time both the Doc James Racetrack and Clinton-Phipps had seen better days. The passage of two catastrophic hurricanes the following year put those plans on an extended hold.

Roach told the crowd he also appreciated the work done so far to get that vision back on track; recalling the days when he served in a Senate session where racetrack development was on the agenda.

Some lawmakers took a lot of criticism in those days, he said, for taking issue with details presented in earlier proposals. “Imagine for those who have been waiting for this facility; we were discussing the previous agreement in the 32nd Legislature. We are now in the 35th. So you understand the impatience of people when government processes seem to be taking forever,” he said.

“But at the same time, you’ve got to get it right,” Roach said. “There are so many ways this economy can benefit from this horse racing track … and I want to celebrate everybody who had anything to do with moving this thing forward.”

Officials welcomed executives of Southland Gaming to the podium on groundbreaking day. Southland, owners and operators of video lottery terminals on St. Thomas and St. John, have worked alongside the government to promote horse racing and other entertainment features at Clinton-Phipps.

Sports, Parks, and Recreation Commissioner Calvert White thanked Southland for taking the lead at the St. Thomas track and getting the work started with help from contractor JPK.

“We want to credit Southland Gaming for getting this thing started,” White said.

Executive Vice President Shaine Gaspard called the collaboration one of the most exciting public-private partnerships imaginable. Company President Robert Huckabee paid tribute to the horse owners and others, “who care for the sport.”

“We will complete this project in a timely manner and bring back horse racing entertainment to the Virgin Islands,” Huckabee said.


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