Colonial Downs lessens expectations Bettors don't open wallets, but track isn't concerned

September 15, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW KENT COUNTY, Va. -- After 10 days, one-third of its inaugural meet, the score card at Colonial Downs reads: 4,082 patrons betting $189,187 per day on the live races. That's $46 per person per day.

That's about half of what management predicted patrons would bet at this remote track between Richmond and Williamsburg. It projected 4,400 patrons betting $400,000 -- or $90 per person per day.

Yesterday, 3,492 patrons bet $185,828. That's $53 per capita.

"It's not that we're not concerned," said Stan Bowker, Colonial Downs' director of operations. "But it takes a long time to build a fan base. When I say long time, I'm saying four or five years.

"On any given day at Colonial Downs, I'd say 90 percent of the people are here for the first time, and this may be the only time they come all year."

Bowker knows something about new racetracks. He helped open tracks in Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa. They all struggled or shut down because of competition from other forms of gambling, especially casinos, or overwhelming debt.

Yesterday, as Colonial Downs conducted its 10th day of racing, Bowker declared its chances for survival as excellent. Why? Minimum debt because of an earlier public offering of stock, and an off-track betting system that subsidizes the live racing.

"If we were having to build our purses on what we handle here, that'd be reason for alarm," Bowker said. "Fortunately, the survival of Colonial Downs is not contingent on the live product."

It is contingent on the off-track betting network: two sites open, two to open this fall, two more to open next spring. Betting at the OTBs allows Colonial Downs to stockpile money to finance purses for live racing.

Although Colonial Downs has 20 days still to run this year, it has already submitted racing dates for next year. Bowker said the second season would be nearly identical to the first: 31 days (one more than this year), beginning Labor Day weekend and running into mid-October.

He said track management would eventually try to change the law that says Colonial Downs must race 150 days a year (combined thoroughbred and harness). Management is unanimous in believing that short meets with high purses are the key to success, he said.

"We think we're going about things the right way," Bowker said. "We're here, and we're going to be here for a long time."

NOTES: Edgar Prado rode five winners yesterday, including Traffic Circle in the $100,000 Polynesian Stakes. The race is part of the MATCH series (Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championships). Prado leads Mark Johnston in the jockey standings, 20 wins to 14. A. Ferris Allen III lengthened his lead in the trainer standings when both horses he saddled, Jolty and Big Bid, won. A native of nearby Varina, Va., Allen has compiled an impressive record at Colonial Downs: 29 starts, 11 wins, 12 seconds. Although John Kimmel of New York is listed as Traffic Circle's trainer, the 4-year-old colt prepared for yesterday's 1 1/16-mile race at Fair Hill in Maryland under the care of Kimmel's assistant, Vinny DePalo. Traffic Circle rallied from last in the five-horse field to win by four lengths.

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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