By Betsy Burke Parker | Fauquier Times
Tuesday, officials of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation said in an exclusive interview that the group may sell the Middleburg Training Center they were gifted in late December by Virginia horseman Randy Rouse.
Lenny Hale, CEO and president of the non-profit racehorse retirement group, had hoped to retain ownership of the 150-acre property, operate – and expand – the training facility, and establish pastures for TRF’s retired racehorses.
But now he said TRF might sell.
TRF director of external affairs Diana Pikulski said “selling may, in the end, be the right decision, though we’re keeping our options open” for leasing or partnering with another horseman’s group.
Daily operations and renovations proved to be part of the issue of keeping the track, Hale said. He noted that though the “bones of the facility are great,” some improvements are needed on the 7/8ths-mile training track and in many of the 11 20-stall barns on the grounds.
“When we first got word Randy was giving us the track, (some of the) board members were concerned,” Hale noted. Part of the board right away wanted to sell, using the windfall to fund TRF operations already in play at satellite facilities around the nation.
Other board members saw opportunity in gaining equity in a valuable property, TRF’s first. “An income-producing facility would give options,” Hale said, to the chiefly volunteer-staffed group.
Originally built by philanthropist and prominent Thoroughbred owner-breeder Paul Mellon in the 1950s as a private training facility, the property was sold in 1975 to a group of local horsemen who ran it as a commercial training center.
Land developer and horseman Randy Rouse bought in 2006 for $4 million.
Though most of the 220 stalls were full when he purchased the training center, the 2008 economic downturn was hard on the racing industry, Rouse said. He put the facility back on the market in 2013.
With no takers as recently as mid-December, Rouse decided to donate to the TRF.
It was a widely lauded, if surprise, charitable donation by Rouse, who turned 100 on Dec. 30.
The Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based TRF, founded in 1983, houses 820 retired racehorses at 23 farms, foster barns and nine prisons.
External affairs director Pikulski explained that “running a training center is very complicated and expensive, and … a deviation of the (TRF’s) mission,” which is chiefly to help racehorse owners retire their athletes from the track. “A partnership … or a sale might be the best option,” she said.
Still, Pikulski said, TRF wants to “do right” by the facility that was entrusted to her group.
The training center is located on the Fauquier-Loudoun line in the center of Virginia’s horse country. Hale said the land should “stay a horse facility, because that’s what this community wants and needs.”
Hale added that he’s already talking with the Virginia Equine Alliance, the Warrenton-based holder of Virginia’s only pari-mutuel license. “I’d love to see that happen,” Hale said.
VEA executive director Jeb Hannum said his group, which runs pari-mutuel meets at Great Meadow and Shenandoah Downs and operates two OTB parlors, is definitely interested. “The Alliance has had the training center on its radar since the VEA was formed in 2014,” Hannum said. “Now that it appears the center may be for sale again, we will certainly consider taking another look at the site.”
Real estate agent John Coles, who listed the property for Rouse with Thomas and Talbot, believes “it’s too early to tell, but I really do think it’ll be business as usual.” He noted that though the land is not yet protected by conservation easement “it’s easier for a developer to develop un-developed land,” and believes the property isn’t in active danger of being turned into a subdivision.
There are about 80 horses stabled on the grounds currently. Horsemen using the training center can continue to do so, said TRF development officer Lizzie Beer. “We’re open for operations,” she stressed.