By Lynne Snierson
“The crowds have exceeded everybody’s expectations. The entries have been good. It’s been excellent for all of us who have been working for this for six years,” said Deborah Easter, president of the Virginia Equine Alliance, a non-profit consortium of the state’s affiliate of the Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association, the Virginia Thoroughbred Association, the Virginia Gold Cup Association, and the Virginias Harness Horsemen’s Association. “Everything is going super.”
Last year, the track was sold by Jacobs Entertainment to the Chicago-based Revolutionary Racing and its Colonial Downs Group oversees and operates the new Colonial Downs/Rosie’s Gaming Emporium in New Kent. Among the promises made, and kept, to Virginia’s horsemen and breeders was that the Virginia Derby and the Virginia Oaks would be repatriated from Laurel Park in Maryland.
“I don’t think there is anybody who wouldn’t tell you that they’re thrilled,’’ said Easter. “The card for Saturday is just another indication that things are going super.”
Saturday’s 10-race, all turf card features the $250,000 New Kent County Virginia Derby (G3), the $150,000 Fasig-Tipton Virginia Oaks and a pair of $100,000 tests for 2-year-olds, The Rosie’s Stakes and the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance Kitten’s Joy Stakes.
Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Graham Motion will send out a trio of sophomores in the field of nine entered in the Virginia Derby, which will be contested at 1 1/8 miles, and the Calumet Farm homebred English Bee is the most intriguing of the group. By 2007 male turf champion and Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) winner English Channel and a maternal grandson of 2004 male turf champion Kitten’s Joy, English Bee gets some class relief after running fourth in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Stakes (G2) at Saratoga on Aug. 2, and two starts back finishing 10th in the Belmont Invitational Derby (G1) on July 6.
Solidify, winner of the Grey Stakes (G3) at Woodbine last year, and Shootin the Breeze, whose only win in eight efforts was in a maiden special weight at Tampa Bay Downs on Jan. 4, are the other two runners for Motion, who also sends out Mercilla in the 1 1/8 mile Virginia Oaks as she seeks her first stakes score.
Mercilla tangles with eight other fillies in the Oaks, including the undefeated and likely favorite Tasting the Stars — winner of the Just Jenda Stakes at Monmouth Park on July 28. Owned by Newton Anner Stud, the Virginia-bred daughter of Bodemeister is trained by Mike Stidham, who also entered the Godolphin homebred Carnival Colors.
Carnival Colors is dropping down Ontario Colleen Stakes (G3) at Woodbine in her last start.
“I can’t explain the happiness we all feel to have the Virginia Derby and the Virginia Oaks back here,” said Easter. “It was great that Maryland let us run our stakes up there, but it’s much better for our folks to be able to run them here. Our fans are here. They didn’t follow us to Maryland.”
The resurrection of Colonial Downs was a considerable undertaking.
The VEA and Jacobs Entertainment had been in a bitter battle that resulted in the track’s 2013 closure. Revolutionary Racing required the passage of expanded gambling legislation to allow historical horse racing (HHR) in the Virginia before it would execute a purchase and sales agreement because the 600 machines would be the source of lucrative and on-going fuel for the purses. The VEA then worked with the principals to get the bill through the statehouse and onto the governor’s desk for signature in 2018.
Furthermore, the VEA, which had been allowed to operate the state’s off-track betting facilities and was using the profits to support a residency program paying a 25 per cent win bonus for Virginia horses running at Mid-Atlantic tracks, turned over the OTB operation to the Colonial Downs Group.
“We were still simulcasting. The Virginia Equine Alliance was able to get legislation changed that allowed us to open off-track-betting sites, and we had four open before Colonial came and got its license. By law we can have ten. We ceded the licenses back to the owner. They ought to be able to do a better job of getting them open. They have already opened three, with a fourth about to open. They can get 10 open faster than we can so that’s a great thing,” said Easter.
Once all the legislative and regulatory ducks were in a row, the new owners pledged an initial $300 million investment in the property’s revitalization and an average daily purse distribution of $500,000 for the 2019 meet, which concludes on September 7.
The horsemen have responded with enthusiasm, as have the bettors.
“Under the new ownership we’re off to a good start. Our field size averages 8.5 starters per race,” said Virginia HBPA executive director Frank Petramalo, Jr. “The handle is quite good. We’re averaging over $1 million per day from all sources, which is good for a track of our size. The last time we were at numbers like that was in 2008 or 2009. We’re happy with the handle. This is just a rough approximation but it’s 85 to 90 per cent simulcast. One of the things we did was to lower the takeout from between 18 to 22 per cent to 16 to 20 per cent and we even have a 12 per cent takeout on our Pick 5 wager, which is helping the handle.”
The fans have also responded favorably. Easter and Petramalo reported sizeable crowds are tuning out for the races, which are run three nights per week.
“The new owners have done a great job and it’s really fun to see the smiling faces of everybody enjoying the races. For basically what is an entire start-up racetrack, the overall picture is very, very positive,” said Easter. “It’s not easy to bring a track back to life. People forget that the owners are a brand-new company and they had to lay down a whole new dirt surface and re-do the whole inside of the building. It wasn’t like it all was just there and ready to go. They had to do a lot in a short amount of time.”
Veteran racetrack executive John Marshall is the general manager. He brought in Jill Byrne as the director of racing and Allison Deluca as racing secretary and both are highly respected throughout the industry.
“The new ownership is really dedicated to bringing racing in Virginia to a high level. They understand the racing business and are willing to devote the resources necessary to bring that about that. They have a very experienced and professional staff and that makes all the difference in the world,” said Petramalo, who added that the target for 2020 is to double the live race dates to 30 while maintaining the $500,000 daily purse structure but that is predicated on how much revenue the HHR machines and OTB sites generate.
“For all of us it’s just fantastic. We’re never going to be able to have year-round racing, but what we can have is something that’s good, something that people enjoy, and something that helps our breeding program and the farms and the training centers here,’’ said Easter. “The programs that we’ve built can be tweaked but already they’re building upon each other and are making the state’s agriculture a lot better than it was.”
Lynne Snierson, a former director of communications at Arlington Park and Rockingham Park, currently is a freelance writer and racing publicist. She covered thoroughbred racing as an award-winning sportswriter for newspapers In Boston, Miami, and St. Louis. She lives in New Hampshire. Secretariat remains her all-time favorite horse.