NEW KENT, Va. -- Colonial Downs officials proclaimed last year that the horse track in southern Virginia would become so successful that fans would one day embrace it as the "Saratoga of the South." Now this year, track officials have christened the new grass course the "Secretariat Turf Course."
Colonial Downs has a long way to go before it can be mentioned favorably in the same sentence as Saratoga or Secretariat. But if it's ever going to get there, the journey begins today with the opening of its second thoroughbred meet.
"Yes, this is the second meet," said Jerry Monahan, vice president of racing operations. "But it's really the first normal meet. And yes, it would help immensely if we had a positive meet."
A positive meet, as Monahan calmly put it yesterday, might begin to remove the stain of the disappointing inaugural thoroughbred meet last year, the even-more disappointing harness meet this year, the millions of dollars lost so far in 1998 and the year-old dispute between Colonial Downs and the Maryland Jockey Club over fees paid and services rendered.
"I think all this talk of the past 12, 18 months will eventually be moot," Monahan said. "This meet could be the turning point."
Perhaps the mood at Colonial Downs yesterday was an indication of that. As horses arrived by the van full, the handful of Maryland trainers here already said they expect a far more successful meet than last year -- when state law forced the track to open Sept. 1 even though construction and preparations weren't finished.
"As long as the purses are guaranteed, I see no reason why the meet shouldn't do well," said Charlsie Cantey, who has divided her 20-horse stable between here and Laurel Park. "The [dirt] track is as perfect as it was last year. It just may be one of the best tracks I've ever set foot on in my life.
"And the turf course looks beautiful."
Colonial Downs officials insist that despite the track's losing nearly $3 million in the first half of the year, the approximately $3.5 million to be paid in purses is in the bank. And with purses guaranteed, they say, the lure of the turf course promises success.
Last year, the turf course wasn't ready, resulting in frequently small fields racing on the dirt. This year, Lenny Hale, the racing secretary, said he expects more than half the races, weather permitting, to be on the turf.
Today, seven of the 10 races are scheduled on grass.
But in the kind of glitch so typical at Colonial Downs, the lights around the racetrack shine outward onto the dirt course. That's because the harness races at night take place upon that course.
The lights don't illuminate the turf course, which is inside the dirt track. So on Thursdays and Fridays, when the races start at 7 p.m., Hale can schedule only the first one or two races on the turf.
Track officials projected an average of 4,400 patrons betting $90 apiece at last year's thoroughbred meet. The numbers: 3,623 patrons betting $65.
Officials projected an average of 2,000 patrons betting $70 apiece at the 42-day harness meet from April to July. The numbers: 1,376 patrons betting $56.
Officials aren't projecting numbers for this meet. But they are hopeful, if not optimistic.
"Everything's going smoothly," said John J. Lenzini, who brought 20 horses from Maryland. "The barns are nice. The track's good. The turf course looks great. There's just something about the place that makes me glad to be here."
What: Colonial Downs' second thoroughbred meet.
Where: Southern Virginia, between Richmond and Williamsburg, off Interstate 64 at Route 155.
Driving time from Baltimore: 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
Schedule: 25 days of racing, today through Oct. 11.
Post times: 1 p.m. today, and then 7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 4 p.m. Mondays.
Tracks: 1 1/4 -mile dirt, second longest in country; 1 1/8 -mile, 180-foot-wide turf, largest in country.
Effect on Maryland: Pimlico, Laurel Park and OTBs will continue simulcasting, but Pimlico and Laurel Park won't race live.
Pub Date: 9/07/98