Hopes rise for Colonial Downs' 2nd trip Turf course, full fields seen turnaround keys

September 05, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Despite a bleak financial picture and an ongoing dispute with the Maryland Jockey Club, the Colonial Downs race track will begin its second season Monday with its cornerstone finally in place: the nation's largest turf course.

Upon that expanse of Bermuda grass -- 1 1/8 miles around, 180 feet wide -- the story of Colonial Downs' success or failure will be written. Last year, without the turf course, the inaugural season of Maryland's partner track in Virginia was a disappointment.

"From the calls we're getting," said John Mooney, chief operations officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, "I think everybody in North America is looking to Colonial Downs to see how this turf course turns out. That's the whole key, the turf course and full betting fields. We'll see how it works out."

Mooney spoke by telephone from Colonial Downs, situated in southern Virginia about a three-hour drive from Baltimore. As he did last year, Mooney is assisting track management. But this year his role has broadened.

That seemingly indicates a willingness by Colonial Downs' officials to accept advice from their more experienced Maryland counterparts. Colonial Downs' officials were criticized last year for not doing that.

"They are asking more questions and listening a little bit more," said Lenny Hale, Maryland Jockey Club's vice president of racing, who serves as Colonial Downs' racing secretary. "They're finally realizing what needs to be done to run a race meet."

That realization comes not a moment too soon.

Colonial Downs reported a second-quarter loss of $1.9 million following a first-quarter loss of $952,000. Even as Colonial Downs' chairman, Jeffrey Jacobs, has pledged $2 million of his family's money to help the ailing track, he has not ruled out seeking protection under bankruptcy laws.

Colonial Downs lost about $1 million during its 42-day harness meet that ended July 5. During its inaugural thoroughbred meet a year ago, attendance and betting fell far below projections.

What's more, Colonial Downs owes the Maryland Jockey Club nearly $2 million in fees and out-of-pocket expenses from last year's meet.

As part of the first interstate racing cooperative in the country, Colonial Downs was to pay the Maryland Jockey Club 2 percent of money wagered in Virginia -- except on live harness racing -- for managing the thoroughbred meet. Pimlico and Laurel Park would cease racing, but not simulcasting, during Colonial Downs' season, assuring the new track a steady supply of horses.

Maryland did its part. About 80 percent of the horses that raced at Colonial Downs came from Maryland barns, Hale said.

But Jacobs stopped paying the 2 percent fee. He hasn't paid it since last September, said Joe De Francis, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club.

The conflict is being arbitrated in Virginia. A decision is not expected until after Oct. 11, the close of the thoroughbred meet.

De Francis acknowledges that this isn't the best way to nurture a partnership.

"But we can't afford to throw our hands up and let this collapse," nTC De Francis said. "I still believe the success of Colonial Downs is fundamental to the long-term success and viability of racing here in Maryland."

Colonial Downs provides a much-needed break in Maryland's year-round operation. The Maryland Jockey Club benefits two ways: By saving on purse money and stockpiling money from simulcasting.

As for purses in Virginia, Hale said the approximately $3.5 million that will be paid is secure in the bank, the result of betting at Colonial Downs' four off-track wagering sites.

Hale said he expects plenty of horses, although most again will come from Maryland, providing competitive fields on dirt and turf. Mooney said the varying post times will position Colonial Downs for greater play at simulcast outlets across the country.

And both men, who have spent considerable time in Virginia, said they've seen and heard many ads for the track on TV, radio and in newspapers.

Added De Francis on the eve of the second go-round for thoroughbreds at Colonial Downs:

"There've been plenty of problems. But I think there's still a tremendous amount of promise."

Colonial fact box

Situated off Interstate 64 between Richmond and Williamsburg, Colonial Downs begins its second thoroughbred meet Monday. Post time is 1 p.m. After that, the schedule is 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 4 p.m. Monday. Closing day is Oct. 11.

Pimlico, Laurel Park and Maryland off-track betting sites will remain open for simulcasts. Laurel Park resumes racing Oct. 14. Maryland Million day at Laurel is Oct. 17.

Pub Date: 9/05/98

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