Va.'s 1st day of racing belongs to Maryland Invaders win 9 of 10 at Colonial Downs

September 02, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW KENT COUNTY, Va. -- On a day that belonged to Marylanders, horse racing returned to its American roots in Virginia.

At 1: 16 p.m. yesterday, the starting gate clanged open at Colonial Downs, releasing eight surging thoroughbreds and launching the first racing cooperative between states.

The Maryland-Virginia racing circuit depends on Maryland trainers embracing the concept and racing their horses at this remote track between Richmond and Williamsburg. If opening day was any indication, the three-hour drive is worthwhile.

Horses from Maryland stables won nine of the 10 races, including both stakes. And the winner of the 10th, although trained by a Virginian, has raced exclusively in Maryland.

In addition, Maryland jockeys rode nine of the 10 winners. Edgar Prado, Maryland's leading jockey, as well as the winningest jockey in North America, captured four of those races.

After winning the first race with his 3-year-old gelding Macgyver, trainer Timothy L. Keefe, based at Laurel Park, was asked how often he planned to race horses at Colonial Downs.

"I might try to come back more now," he said, a smile on his face and a bottle of Dom Perignon in his hand.

The champagne -- and a cluster of carrots -- were gifts from management for winning the first race at a pari-mutuel racetrack in the state that gave birth to horse racing in this country more than 350 years ago.

For the occasion, 13,468 spectators jammed this $55 million facility -- built to hold 6,000 to 10,000 comfortably.

They listened to marching bands and fife-and-drum corps, and they watched a procession of carriages carrying dignitaries from George Allen, Virginia's governor, to Penny Chenery, owner of Secretariat, the greatest Virginia-bred, and perhaps greatest thoroughbred, in history.

The first race started in front of the colonial-style grandstand, and, when the gate flew open, the fans roared as if it were the Preakness. Long lines, heat and humidity and a brief shower late in the afternoon didn't seem to bother them.

"It's great to see the enthusiasm of these fans, their cheering and excitement and their pure joy at having live racing," said Joe De Francis, majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park.

Those tracks won't race live during Colonial Downs' 30-day meet that runs through Oct. 12. That's part of the deal between Colonial Downs and De Francis' Maryland Jockey Club.

The potential snag, it seems, is a shortage of horses to fill the races. But Colonial Downs officials say now that the track has opened and its races have been simulcast across the country, including back to Maryland, they hope more trainers will show interest.

"I think they will," Keefe said. "Once we get back and the jockeys get back, and we tell people what a nice facility this is and how good the track is and how nice everybody is, I think they'll come down."

Lenny Hale, the racing secretary from the Maryland Jockey Club, managed to fill just eight races for Thursday, Colonial Downs' next day of racing, and nine races for Friday. But five of those nine races are for horses that have never won.

"Am I happy about that? Not De Francis really," Hale said. "But, under the circumstances, I'm glad to have the races."

One Maryland trainer glad to be here is A. Ferris Allen III. He's originally from Richmond, which is 25 miles west of Colonial Downs.

"I hope I don't have to race a horse anywhere but here for six weeks," Allen said. "But I doubt there'll be races for all of them."

He found two to his liking yesterday, the sixth and the seventh, won by his Take Flight and Polish Lass.

The two trainers who won stakes races, H. Graham Motion with Flashing River and Mary Eppler with Victory Gallop, said they don't plan to stable horses here, but will ship horses down occasionally.

"I think we've got to give it a chance," said Motion, stabled at Laurel Park. "It's very incomplete; things still need to be done for the horsemen. But I'm not here to gripe. I understood how it was going to be before we came."

Eppler encountered trouble when she arrived on the backstretch and no one seemed to know where Victory Gallop was. He had ridden down on a van earlier in the morning. She had to find him herself. A few hours later, he won the $50,000 New Kent Stakes.

John J. Lenzini Sr., who won a race with Sky Watch, was sky high on all counts.

"The talk has been so bad," said Lenzini, based at Laurel Park, about the advance criticism of Colonial Downs. "I just wanted to see for myself.

"I think it's great. This may be the best track [racing surface] in the country. And wait until that turf course takes off. Next year, this place will be so popular you won't be able to get a stall here."

Pub Date: 9/02/97

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