In a perfect world, Tyler Picklesimer would love to run thoroughbreds at Colonial Downs throughout the spring and summer, but horse racing in the modern era is far from a model business venture.
To survive, tracks have had to get creative with how they schedule events, when they schedule race and how they split up purses to attract competitive fields. Colonial Downs, which has built its reputation on the popularity of its turf course, is no different.
On Saturday, Colonial Downs will open its 25-day thoroughbred meet with a day that will feature the $50,000 "Zeke" Ferguson Memorial Steeplechase Stakes and a simulcast of the Belmont Stakes on the infield jumbotron after the second race of the day. Colonial Downs will feature thoroughbred racing on Wednesdays through Sundays until July 13 — 6 p.m. first post times on Wednesdays through Saturdays, and 12:55 p.m. starts on Sundays.
While 25 days of racing may not seem like much, the primary goal was to increase purses. Colonial Downs has done it by eliminating eight days from its thoroughbred meet schedule and tweaking its slate of 16 stakes races, including the Colonial Turf Cup and the Virginia Derby.
"If the economy was different and we had more purse money, I think we'd gladly run a longer meet — I mean, five months if we could," said Picklesimer, the director of racing at Colonial Downs. "Our niche is that turf course. A lot of lower-level claimers can come (to Colonial Downs) and run on the turf and be competitive.
"The night racing is going to be a big part of it, too, because it's cooler, less stress on the horses and the jockey and the fan is going to be more comfortable all the way around. It's a win-win."
The demise of tracks far more established than Colonial Downs, which has had 17 season of thoroughbred racing, functions as a wake-up call to people throughout the industry. Hollywood Park, a 75-year-old track in Inglewood, Calif., that features more than 40 graded stakes races, announced last month it'll close at the end of its fall racing season.
"That's very scary when you hear about tracks like Hollywood closing," said Stephanie Nixon, an Ashland-based trainer who has been stabling and racing thoroughbreds at Colonial Downs since the track opened. "That's where a lot of stuff and a lot of ideas in our sport originated out there, so when you hear about places like that closing, you can't help but notice.
"I'd love to have more weeks of racing (at Colonial Downs), but I understand it. You'll get (horsemen) from outside the state who will ask about the length of the meet, but they'll still come because the (turf) is so good. I think those people are always going to come for that reason."
With a more attractive racing setup for horsemen in mind, Colonial Downs increased its purses 25 percent compared to last year primarily by reducing the number of race days. Picklesimer said on average a thoroughbred race day this summer at Colonial Downs will feature eight races that will be run with a total purse of about $165,000, excluding stakes races.
Colonial Downs, which also ran 25-day meets in 1998, '99 and 2001, will have 16 stakes races this summer with $1,755,000 up for grabs. The most highly anticipated stakes races will be the Colonial Turf Cup, which will be run for the ninth time on June 22, and the Virginia Derby, which will be contested for the 16th time this year on July 13 — the last day of the meet.
After a two-year absence from the graded stakes schedule due to conditions that were tweaked to invite 3-year-olds and up as opposed to strictly 3 year olds, the Colonial Turf Cup has picked up a Grade II status this year. The Virginia Derby is also a Grade II event.
In order to accommodate higher purses for the regular overnight schedule of races, the purse for the Colonial Turf Cup has been reduced this year from $500,000 to $300,000, and the Virginia Derby purse has been lowered from $600,000 to $500,000. Two local stakes, the Daniel Van Clief and the Chesapeake, will be on hiatus this year.
Picklesimer added part of the goal in trying to attract bigger name trainers to the track was to increase purses for maiden special weight races. He said those races need to have purses around $40,000. This season, Colonial Downs will feature maiden special weight events with purses of $30,000, which is up from $23,000 last year.
"We're going in the right direction as far as purse money on an overnight race, but there's still a pretty good gap we've got to lessen," said Picklesimer, who added Colonial Downs will also run a 12-horse shuttle this season from Laurel Park race track in Laurel, Md., to Colonial Downs and back on race days to accommodate horsemen that may be interested in traveling, but don't want to have to pay for barn space and lodging in and around Colonial Downs.
"To get a Keeneland-type meet or a Saratoga-type meet, you've got to get the purse money to where those guys will come and play. We're getting there."