NEW KENT, Va. -- You've heard the expression "horse for the course." It applies to a horse who relishes a particular track, running well there despite not always running well elsewhere.
Here's a variation on that: "Trainer for the track." That applies to Bob Leonard, a laid-back, retired airline pilot who trains horses seven months of the year and plays golf in Florida the other five.
Yesterday, Leonard found his perfect track in Colonial Downs, the laid-back, friendly place in southern Virginia where the stress and speedy life of Maryland seem a world away.
Leonard saddled the winners of both stakes on Colonial Downs' signature day. His Phi Beta Doc charged from ninth to win the $200,000 Virginia Derby. And then in the next race, his Chancellor M. H. shot to the lead and won the $75,000 Chenery Stakes gate to wire.
"What a great day," said Leonard, based at Fair Hill in northern Maryland. "I hope this place continues to grow. We've done well here."
Leonard, 57, has trained horses on and off for years, but only two years full time since retiring from Northwest Airlines. He and his long-time friend Dennis Foster own 10 horses and run them almost as a hobby. They do it their own way, too.
They castrate their male horses as soon as they buy them. Their goal is a long racing career, not breeding. And they shun nearly all drugs, including Lasix, which most trainers use to curb their horses' bleeding from the lungs.
Credit their unorthodox ways for Phi Beta Doc's victory. He raced last Sunday at Belmont Park, but Leonard wheeled him back six days later in the Virginia Derby. Phi Beta Doc, a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Doc's Leader, responded with a 1 1/2-length win and a track record of 1 minute, 59.97 seconds for 1 1/4 miles on turf.
So what does Leonard plan next, a race for the horse on Wednesday?
"I guess I deserved that one," he said, laughing.
Phi Beta Doc returned $8.60 to win as the lukewarm 3-1 favorite. Passinetti, a Slew o' Gold colt trained by Kentucky-based Niall O'Callaghan, finished second, a half-length in front of North East Bound, a New Jersey-based gelding trained by William Perry.
The exacta paid $41.20, the trifecta $148.60.
On a brilliantly sunny fall day at this colonial-style track midway between Richmond and Williamsburg, 4,690 fans turned out for the premier event of this five-week meet. Even though that was 3,413 fewer than Virginia Derby day last year, John Mooney said he was pleased.
Mooney is the Maryland Jockey Club executive serving as chief operating officer of Colonial Downs. His mission here is stopping the bleeding from two years of mismanagement and financial losses. Mooney acknowledged that attendance this fall, averaging 1,640, has suffered because of the cutback in stakes races.
Colonial Downs slashed its stakes program in hopes of saving enough money to keep the track alive another year. Then next year, the reasoning goes, with Maryland Jockey Club management firmly in place, the track can return to purses of $150,000 a day (as opposed to this year's $125,000) and a full schedule of stakes.
Mooney said he believes the cutback in stakes races costs the track 500 customers every Saturday and Sunday. Colonial Downs competes with NASCAR racing, the state fair and college football games, and it needs marquee races -- more than just one big Virginia Derby weekend -- to lure bettors from Maryland and northern Virginia.
Nevertheless, betting has increased on Colonial Downs' races, especially betting out of state, as the meet has progressed. Wagering surpassed $1 million seven of the last nine race days. As an example of the power of out-of-state betting, Colonial Downs handled $1.5 million Friday with only 885 patrons in the stands.
"I think people are just becoming aware of our product, and they love betting on grass races," Mooney said, referring to gamblers' heightened interest in large fields on the turf, this track's specialty.
The slow response from bettors is the result of controversy in the off-season that has so far marred Colonial Downs each of its three years.
"We haven't had a year without controversy," Mooney said. "People are always doubting whether we're even going to open. With some planning, which we will be able to do next year, I think we've got a lot to look forward to."
Pub Date: 10/03/99