Warming trend as Colonial winds up Maryland horsemen give Va. track a nod

October 01, 1997|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

NEW KENT COUNTY, Va. -- Before the meeting began, serious skepticism abounded among Maryland horsemen.

"I had no confidence at all that they'd make it through the first week," said trainer Jerry Robb of the Colonial Downs thoroughbred session, the first in Virginia.

"It was not a very smart place to put a track," said trainer Dick Small, referring to the isolated site between Richmond and Norfolk. "I don't think I gave a thought that they'd finish the meet."

But with slightly more than a week remaining in Colonial's six-week run, the reaction has turned more positive.

Maryland connections are dominating the session and "winning a lot of money," said Joe De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club. "That makes it more favorable for them."

Trainers are pleased with the condition of the main-track surface, with their horses generally returning sound. Competition is not overly stiff, so they have a good opportunity to take home portions of decent purses.

"We had a $100,000 race one day with $25,000 worth of horses in it," said Robb.

So, more and more, they are tolerating the inconveniences of shipping to compete here.

Some even see a brighter future for the alliance between the two states.

"There is a lot of complaining, but in the overall scenario, I think it's better to have an ally instead of an enemy," said trainer Bill Boniface.

"They were going to open a track, anyway, and for the rest of the year we can benefit from their OTBs. And, it will help Maryland have a little better purse account to maintain our ability to compete with Delaware.

"As long as they don't keep asking for more and more days, it'll be fine."

"Let's face it, I don't think Virginia could have gotten off the

ground without us," said Grover "Bud" Delp. "But I think they're going to make it."

Maryland racing secretary Lenny Hale has been the driving force behind the early success.

"He has taken on loads of work and, without him, I don't think Maryland horsemen would have responded," said Delp.

"Without Lenny, I don't think they would have weathered the storm," said Boniface.

"You have to give credit where it's due," said Small. "Management stuck with it and made it go."

Hale said horsemen will find something to complain about no matter what, and that he "hoped for a better response. I expected more. This has been a tough sell."

But, when the turf course (expected to be the best in country) is completed for the next session, Colonial is expected to draw appreciably more action.

"A lot of people have grass horses this time of year," said Hale. "That was a major problem. If they don't come when that's ready, there might be a beef."

For Boniface, whose Bonita Farm is near Cecil County, Colonial Downs is a major trek, when Delaware Park and the New Jersey tracks are nearby. And his stable is dominated by grass runners this year.

But he has run three horses in Virginia and said, "When they have turf, I'll have a much easier time going there. I might send a division down and bring horses in and out. I'm used to shipping. I always ship the night before to New York."

At this point, Maryland horsemen have reduced their objections to two major problems.

Shipping: The Maryland Jockey Club operates free vanning service to the track, but the vans leave early in the morning. Trainers with horses in later races have a long wait and often opt for private transportation.

"I wouldn't want to have to do this every day," said Gary Capuano, who is stabled at Bowie, the nearest Maryland track to Colonial. "You have from 5: 30 a.m. until 10 at night, except on Friday when they run at night. Then, you don't get back until 3 a.m."

"You have to send somebody [groom or assistant trainer] with the horse, so the expenses are out of pocket," said Delp, who is stabled at Laurel. "And you can't ask those people to work at 6 a.m. Saturday after getting home at 3. So you need somebody else that you have to pay."

"I don't run as many as I would at Laurel," said Small, whose stable is at Pimlico.

"It's not practical to stable there and it's very hard to ship. You can't pay help enough to stay there because there's nothing to do, and each horse needs an average of almost one person."

Licensing: The Virginia Racing Commission is requiring each person accompanying horses to be licensed.

"It costs $40, $50," said Robb. "I think that's the biggest problem I've had."

"That becomes a nuisance," said Capuano. "Anywhere else, your help is issued day passes if they're only going to come once with a horse."

Still, if the money is available, horsemen will go.

"We go anywhere if it's big enough," said Boniface. "You gotta go for it if it's there," said Robb.

And, before next autumn, the likelihood is that more trainers will consider sending at least a portion of their stable to the grounds.

"I think then more people will have the confidence to do that," said Robb.

"There is nothing wrong with closing Maryland for six weeks," said Delp. "I wouldn't hesitate to send some of my horses to Virginia."

Boniface sees beyond the everyday activity of the trainers.

"The second time I was down there, I looked at the crowd in the grandstand and I was impressed that at least seven out of 10 people were novice race-goers," he said. "You could tell they were green as grass.

"To me, that's good for the game -- exposure to new fans. They aren't betting much now, but they'll bet more later. We need them."

The skepticism is still there, but it is beginning to dissolve as Colonial Downs heads toward its first finish line.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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