The Virginia segment of the area thoroughbred racing schedule goes postward today with renewed vigor.
Colonial Downs, the picturesque track in New Kent, Va., that struggled through its early years, will open with five more racing days than last summer, steady recent gains in live attendance and handle and the addition of the first two legs of the $3.65 million Grand Slam of Grass on its signature turf course.
The track's 40-day meeting will conclude Aug. 9. Post time is 5 p.m. each Friday, Monday and Tuesday and 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
"We've gained 10 to 20 percent a year over five years," said Colonial general manager John Mooney.
"And we're adding three new satellite wagering facilities [in Martinsville, near Virginia Beach and in Scott County, near the Tennessee border]. That will enable our purses to grow. We intend to run 50 days next year, and I think we can make it."
Demand for stall space has been overwhelming. The track has made considerable physical improvements, including the expansion of the stretch area to include tents with 5,000 seats inside, installation of picnic tables in the lower patio section and an increased number of parking spaces.
"We're gearing up to have two major events," Mooney said.
Both are tied to the Grand Slam series. The first will be the $500,000 Colonial Cup on June 25, a new grass race for the track at 1 3/16 miles. The second will be the traditional meet headliner, the Grade III Virginia Derby on July 16 with a purse that has been elevated to $750,000, a 50 percent increase.
The series will continue with two Grade I events, the $400,000 Secretariat at Arlington Park in Illinois on Aug. 13 and the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf at New York's Belmont Park in October. Any horse who wins all four races will take home a $2 million bonus, and $100,000 is being offered to owners and trainers of the top three finishers in points in the series.
Colonial has traditionally run about 90 percent of its races on the turf, but Mooney said, "We're trying to change. We're hoping to have at least 25 percent on the dirt this year. It will be to the advantage of trainers, who can bring more horses."
Racing will return to Pimlico Race Course on Aug. 12 for a brief meet before Timonium opens.