Colonial Downs opens, with Maryland on hand Horses, riders, managers go south for 30-day meet

September 01, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW KENT COUNTY, Va. -- The Maryland Jockey Club and Colonial Downs embark today on an innovative partnership: the first interstate racing cooperative in the country.

For six weeks, today through Oct. 12, Pimlico and Laurel Park will not race while Colonial Downs conducts its inaugural meet. Thoroughbreds won't race again in Maryland until Oct. 15 when Laurel Park reopens.

The Maryland-Virginia circuit is truly a partnership. The Maryland Jockey Club is managing the meet, and Maryland trainers are supplying many of the horses.

Seventy-five percent of those in today's 10 races are from Maryland. Some have already moved into stalls on the backstretch here, but most will ride down this morning in vans supplied by Colonial Downs.

The drive is about three hours. Situated in southern Virginia, Colonial Downs is halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg.

Of the 17 jockeys scheduled to ride in today's races, 11 are from Maryland, including Edgar Prado, the winningest jockey in North America.

Dave Rodman is the track announcer, Kim Goodwin the racing analyst, David Rollinson the stakes coordinator. They're all from Maryland. And the list goes on and on, including backstretch veterinarians Bob Vallance and Nick Meittinis.

"I was as negative about this as anybody," Meittinis said yesterday of racing in Virginia. "I didn't think the track would be finished. I didn't think they'd be able to fill races.

"But now that I'm here, now that I can see it, I think this should be perceived as our Saratoga, the Saratoga of the south. Next year, when the turf course is ready, this will be one of the premier tracks. Right now, the dirt track is one of the best I've ever seen."

Colonial Downs struggled to open on time, and even yesterday, workers continued painting, wiring TVs, laying sod, planting flowers and rushing to finish the paddock and winner's circle.

The turf course, the largest in the country, is turning slightly green. It probably won't be ready for racing until next year. Then, horsemen and track officials say, it will become Colonial Downs' greatest attraction.

Patrick "Pappy" Manuel, normally stabled at Laurel Park, is impressed with the set-up already. He brought down 15 of his 26 horses, and three race today, including Dr. Merv in the first race.

Manuel, 34, could be the first trainer to pose for photos in Colonial Downs' winner's circle.

"Oh man, that'd be great," he said. "What more could you want?"

"I'm going to support this place as much as I can," he said. "Racing has been good to me, and I want to give something back to racing. Who wants to read about another track closing down?"

Of the 10 major horse tracks that have opened since 1985, six have declared bankruptcy, said Tom Aronson, a consultant to the pari-mutuel industry from Alexandria, Va. The ones most successful, he said, have relied on off-track betting systems for financial support.

Colonial Downs has opened two OTBs, in Richmond and Chesapeake, and is building two more, in Hampton and New Brunswick. State law permits six, but Colonial Downs officials plan on asking for more. The first two have been so successful that the track has nearly all of the meet's $4.5 million purse account secure in the bank.

Aronson said Colonial Downs had other things going for it, as well: A small debt-load, the marriage with Maryland, a short meet supplemented by year-round OTBs and a relatively inexpensive, $55 million grandstand designed for today's smaller on-track crowds.

But Aronson said the track also faces hurdles: Its remote location, a dwindling supply of horses nationwide and, if the partnership with Maryland fails, a severe shortage of horses.

"But it's all speculation now," Aronson said. "Good or bad, the answers will be found at the turnstiles."

Fact box

What: Colonial Downs

Where: Southern Virginia, between Richmond and Williamsburg, off Interstate 64 at Rte. 155

Distance from Baltimore: 180 miles from beltway at I-95.

Driving time: About three hours.

Inaugural meet: 30 days between Sept. 1 and Oct. 12.

Effect on Maryland: No live thoroughbred racing in Maryland during Colonial Downs meet; simulcasts and stabling continue.

Purses: $167,000 per day.

Tracks: 1 1/4 -mile dirt, second longest in country; 1 1/8 -mile, 180-foot-wide turf course (widest in country, probably won't be ready this meet).

Post time: 1 p.m. today, Saturdays and Sundays; 3 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 6 p.m. Fridays.

Admission: $5 for parking, admission and program.

Track concerts: Sept. 5, Merle Haggard; Sept. 27, Temptations; Oct. 11, Roomful Of Blues, Rod Piazza and The Mighty Flyers.

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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