Jeffrey Jacobs, majority stockholder of financially strapped Colonial Downs, says he has the solution to his racetrack's woes.
If the horsemen who compete at the Virginia track and the state commissioners who regulate it don't take steps to make it profitable, Jacobs may put his own strategy into effect. He would turn back his operator's license, close down the off-track betting parlors and offer the track to horsemen for the running of short Keeneland-like meets with purses of $300,000 to $400,000 a day, he says.
It seems that Jacobs, a developer with offices in Ohio and Florida, has done an about-face regarding the future of his colonial-style track, which has lost money each of three seasons. It opened Monday for its fourth annual meet that attracts horsemen from several states but mainly from Maryland.
Jacobs has gone from offering his track for sale to devising a far-fetched plan for turning it into what he says could be one of the top five horse tracks in the country.
Privately, racing insiders say the plan is crazy. They say it's more bluster from Jacobs as he continually tries to blame horsemen and racing commissioners for problems he has brought upon himself.
Jacobs says Colonial Downs will continue to lose more than $1 million a year unless "the system in Virginia is fixed to allow us to make a profit." For instance, he says, the horsemen could reimburse him for certain expenses, such as advertising, and the racing commission could allow him to abandon the harness meet that, he says, will lose $700,000 this year.
If that doesn't happen, Jacobs says, he will consider forfeiting his license, shutting down his four OTBs and offering the track to horsemen's groups. They could obtain a license to run nonprofit, 14-day meets in the spring and fall with daily purses more than double the current levels.
Jacobs says he would fund the purses with revenue from the 10 to 12 Louisiana truck stops he is buying. The truck stops feature video-poker machines that would create a revenue stream for the racetrack of "several million dollars a year," he says.
Robin Traywick Williams, head of the Virginia Racing Commission, says she has heard dribs and drabs of Jacobs' plan.
"On the face of it, it's such an unusual approach that it's hard to say what the reaction will be," Williams says. "I guess the little bit of reaction I have heard has been - what's the word I want? - not encouraging."
Before Colonial Downs opened in 1997 at its remote location between Richmond and Williamsburg, Jacobs said he believed the track could become the "Saratoga of the South."
But despite its widely praised dirt and turf racing surfaces, it has struggled financially. The Maryland Jockey Club assumed management of the track and OTBs last year, and things improved.
Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the MJC, says Jacobs has not discussed the new plan with him. John Mooney, who manages Colonial Downs for the MJC, says Jacobs hasn't mentioned it to him, either.
Meanwhile, Jacobs has applied for 150 race dates in 2001. Colonial Downs will run 72 this year (32 thoroughbred Sept. 4-Oct. 17, 40 harness Oct. 27-Dec.23).
Jacobs says he did that for "political purposes ... because whenever we put in a number that's less than 150, the commission and others use that to try to beat Colonial Downs over the head."
State law says Colonial Downs must offer 150 days of racing by 2003.
"We put the ball in the commission's court," Jacobs says of his 150-day request. "Let's have a candid discussion about what really does work."
Colonial Downs numbers
Although rain forced racing off the turf Monday and Tuesday, the opening days of the Colonial Downs' meet, the handle figures were encouraging, Mooney says.
On Monday, $731,908 was wagered in Virginia on live and simulcast races and out of state on Colonial Downs races, compared to $582,454 on opening day last year. On-track attendance Monday was 5,186 compared to 5,301 last year.
Betting was even heavier Tuesday because of less competition from other tracks, Mooney says. Total handle was $846,577. Of that, $671,291 came from out-of-state bettors. Attendance at Colonial Downs was 677.
A little mud never hurt
Trainer Bud Delp says that Include, the beaten favorite in the Pennsylvania Derby on a sloppy track Monday at Philadelphia Park, stopped running when mud started hitting him in the face. He finished sixth.
"He had never been exposed to those kind of conditions before," Delp says. "That was a good experience for him. We'll regroup a little bit and go from there."
Instead of testing his young Broad Brush colt against the top tier of 3-year-olds in the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs, Delp says he'll nominate Include to the Paterson Stakes Oct. 7 at the Meadowlands.
He plans to nominate another of his potential stars, Concerned Minister, to the Paterson. But Delp says his primary objective for the son of Concern and Star Minister will be the Maryland Million Classic Oct. 21 at Laurel Park.
Max Mosner has reviewed the final figures for Timonium's 10-day meet that ended Monday, and he says they're "disappointing." Mosner is vice president and general manager of the Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society Inc., which owns the track.
Wagering was down 8.8 percent compared to last year, $15,155,884 this year compared to $16,616,145 last year. This is the first year handle has fallen since 1994, when Timonium began offering simulcast betting.
Mosner attributes the drop-off to the weather and small fields. It rained at least part of eight of the 10 racing days. It rained so hard eight days ago that seven races were canceled.
Short fields, translated into a shortage of horses for the amount of racing being conducted, have hurt tracks throughout the mid-Atlantic region.
"It seemed as if every time I looked up," Mosner says, "the race had five or six horses in it."