Colonial calls 1st run success Filling cards biggest obstacle

betting falls below expectations

October 13, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW KENT COUNTY, Va. -- After shining for nearly six straight weeks, the sun set yesterday on the inaugural season at Colonial Downs.

Since opening Sept. 1, thoroughbreds raced in near-ideal conditions on a surface deemed by trainers and jockeys as one of the finest -- if not the finest -- in the country. On days they raced here at Colonial Downs, rain soaked the track only once.

And so yesterday, as the sun shined yet again, Virginia and Maryland officials looked back over 30 days of racing at Virginia's first pari-mutuel track. As you might think after a meet that many predicted would never open, or once opening would promptly fail, the officials proclaimed success.

"All things considered, I think it went very well," said Joe De Francis, majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park. "As I said from the beginning, we just wanted to get through this first meet."

No calamities befell Colonial Downs -- no systems crash that knocked out betting, no track fiascoes that prevented racing. But that doesn't mean all went smoothly.

The menu every morning was the same: "the crisis of the day," said Lenny Hale, who as racing secretary was, in his words, "life and death" to fill races many days.

"Still, things went better than I expected but not as well as I'd hoped," Hale said. "The greatest thing was seeing the excitement of the fans. They seemed to really enjoy themselves. And new fans are what we need in racing. Now we've got a whole new state to work on."

The Maryland-Virginia circuit, the first interstate racing cooperative in the nation, ensured that while Colonial Downs raced, thoroughbred tracks in Maryland would not. That avoided a battle for horses and fans.

But while horses raced in Virginia -- most from Maryland stables -- Maryland bettors stayed busy. De Francis said that he expected a 30 to 35 percent drop in wagering, but that handle on simulcasts decreased only 18.7 percent.

"That's great news for Maryland racing," De Francis said. "We have a very substantial reserve of money now that allows us to maintain purses at existing levels all through the winter. We may even be able to raise purses."

At Colonial Downs, most betting statistics fell below expectations. Projections called for 4,400 patrons betting $400,000 a day -- $90 per person per day.

Attendance averaged 3,623.

But 3,000 fans here seem equivalent to twice that many in Maryland. Colonial Downs' small grandstand brims with life with a crowd of a few thousand. And Virginia fans are enthusiastic. They roar when the starting gate opens and roar again when the horses storm down the homestretch. Then they applaud for the victor as he trots to the winner's circle.

Those fans bet about $230,000 per day on live and simulcast races.

The good news, said Stan Bowker, operations manager, is that per capita betting increased from a dismal opening-day $43 to an end-of-the-meet $65. Twice, he said, it topped $100. In Maryland, per capita betting is more than $150.

Bowker said most fans had never seen a horse race in person before walking into Colonial Downs. They bet more as they learned.

"The trends were exactly right," said Jim Peterson, president of Colonial Downs. "We hope we can open up next year with this kind of momentum and then get better."

Two betting statistics exceeded projections.

Out-of-state betting on Colonial Downs averaged about $750,000, and wagering at Virginia's off-track betting sites in Richmond and Chesapeake maintained levels -- a combined $1.4 million per week -- even after Colonial Downs opened.

Colonial Downs plans to open two more OTBs this year, and two more next year.

On the down side, out-of-state betting fell off as the meet progressed, mainly because so many late scratches from already short fields rendered Virginia racing less desirable.

Colonial Downs plans to race 31 days next year -- one more than this year -- starting again around Labor Day.

First, it will run a 53-day harness meet from late April to early July. Although the Maryland Jockey Club runs the thoroughbred meetings here -- in return for 2 percent of thoroughbred handle -- it has nothing to do with the harness meet.

Workers now can complete tasks they left unfinished in the frantic rush to meet a state-imposed deadline for opening day -- finish barns, grow grass, landscape, pave and paint, for starters. Most important, grass on the turf course can mature so that Colonial Downs can offer turf racing, its signature product.

"I know they had some glitches this year," Maryland trainer Katy Voss said. "But it's going to be a very nice place next year."

NOTES: A. Ferris Allen III ran away with the trainer's title, winning 25 races in 78 starts. His horses recorded 21 seconds and 12 thirds. Edgar Prado, the nation's winningest rider, easily won the jockey's competition. In 172 mounts, he won 59, finished second 32 times and third 30. Appropriately, he won the last race of the meet aboard Screen Door Slam. Before 6,089 fans, the meet's fourth-largest crowd, Mercy Me led nearly every step to win the $108,800 Tippett Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. Trained by Jean L. Rofe, the Virginia-bred paid $16.60. Laurel Park opens Wednesday.

Pub Date: 10/13/97

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