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Senators Question Conditions at Clinton Phipps Race Track

Nov. 23, 2005—It doesn't look good for horseracing on St. Thomas, according to Sen. Celestino A. White Sr.
White came to this conclusion after receiving testimony from stakeholders in the local horseracing industry at a public meeting Tuesday evening. The meeting was called to find out the status of racing at the Clinton Phipps Racetrack.
The racetrack, which White called the "cow pasture," and which horse owners called "Suffering Downs," has not seen a race in at least eight months, and is in deplorable condition. Housing, Parks, and Recreation Commissioner Ira M. Hobson said this is because the current promoter Lester Ashby of New Image Racing has not been fulfilling the conditions of his contract with the government to manage and operate Clinton Phipps.
Ashby did not attend Tuesday night's meeting, although he was asked to testify there—angering approximately 100 residents who had come to hear what Ashby had to say. White said he had received correspondence from Ashby two days ago, saying Ashby would be off the island undergoing eye surgery. White didn't buy the excuse, saying, "I know we asked him to come weeks ago—there's a reason he didn't send anything until Monday."
Hobson added that Ashby—who is leasing the racetrack from Housing, Parks, and Recreation—owed the government $4,200 in rent for the past four months. Liston Fahie, secretary of the Horse Owner's Association said Ashby also owes his organization more than $6,000 in proceeds from simulcasting at the track.
Hobson said because Ashby owes money, Housing, Parks and Recreation dismissed the permanent government contract with Ashby, and entered into a month- to-month contract with New Image Racing to maintain and the track and promote races only. The contract does not allow Ashby to make any major improvements on the property—such as building a grand stand, or fixing the roof on the current building at the track. In response to a question from senators, Hobson said Ashby has not been fulfilling these stipulations either, and Hobson is "not satisfied" with any of the work New Image has been doing.
Housing, Parks, and Recreation sent out a Request for Proposal (RFP) about two months ago for another promoter and is now in the process of reviewing applications, Hobson said. However, when probed, he admitted that only one company had submitted a bid, which Housing, Parks, and Recreation has already accepted. "The principals for this new company are Mr. Lester Ashby, and Mr. Edward McKenzie," Hobson said to the amazement of senators and stakeholders in the audience.
"There's some crooked business going on here," Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. said, after hearing Hobson's statement.
White questioned Hobson as to why Housing, Parks, and Recreation would accept other proposal from Ashby after he complained New Image has not been doing work at the track. Hobson said the Horse Owner's Association told him to do it, but Leon Battiste, president of the Horse Owner's Association, said this is not true, and Ashby should be terminated if he's not doing the work.
Hobson was further backed into a corner Tuesday night when senators asked him to produce the lease Housing, Parks, and Recreation had issued between the government and New Image for the property. While Hobson said he was "sure" there was a lease agreement, he could not show senators anything but a piece of paper with one paragraph outlining the conditions of the temporary license. When asked again, Hobson said this was the current lease agreement.
Battiste said there is also no valid contract between horse owners and Ashby to operate the property. The government does not have insurance for the racetrack, to cover someone in case they get hurt, he said. "That's the real problem."
Senators were confused. "So, there's no lease, and no agreement to operate the property, no insurance which is needed to operate the racetrack," Sen. Usie R. Richards said. "If I were Mr. Ashby, I wouldn't be giving you guys any money either."
To round out the evening, James O'Bryan, St. Thomas administrator, was asked to tell horse owners what the government would be doing to make the situation better. O'Bryan said the government should put up the money to fix the track, and then look for a promoter. "No one's going to want to invest in the track if it's looking like that," he said.
White said legislation had been stamped in Tuesday evening to appropriate $2.5 million from the General Fund or Public Finance Authority funds to fix the track, and hire employees to maintain the track.
O'Bryan said this was a good idea, and that he would talk to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull about the government picking up the tab for a new insurance policy for one or two years. After that point, he said, proceeds from the racetrack should be able to cover it.
"It's really time for us to fix this," he said. "It's an eyesore, an embarrassment, and we should be working hard to bring horseracing back to the community."

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