Grass greener at Colonial Downs with addition of large turf course Jockeys, trainers give rave reviews to track

September 08, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW KENT, Va. -- The turf course at Colonial Downs, the largest in the nation and this track's main hope for survival, received rave reviews yesterday as horses raced upon it for the first time.

As Colonial Downs, Maryland's partner track in southern Virginia, launched its second thoroughbred meet, seven of the day's 10 races took place on grass. Last year, Colonial Downs struggled through its inaugural season without a turf course.

"It's one of the nicest grass courses I've ever ridden on," said Maryland jockey Mark Johnston after winning the first race, a 1 3/16-mile marathon on turf. "It's like a carpet."

After winning the opening-day turf stakes -- the $100,000 Bald Eagle Breeders' Cup -- on the veteran campaigner Ops Smile, Edgar Prado said the 1 1/4 -mile trip was "like riding on a golf course."

And Bill Boniface, who trains Ops Smile, said in the winner's circle: "I walked the turf course this morning, and I thought it was fabulous. The grass is as thick as the hair on a dog's back."

So it went from jockeys and trainers all day, as 7,320 enthusiastic fans crowded into the attractive colonial-style racetrack between Richmond and Williamsburg. They bet $425,184 on Colonial Downs' races as well as races at other tracks available by simulcast.

That amounts to an average of $58 per person -- far below the $150 or $200 of a typical bettor in Maryland, but an improvement over last year's opening day when 13,468 fans bet an average of $42.

"We've had good racing that's been very competitive," said John Mooney, the Maryland Jockey Club's chief operations officer who is assisting Colonial Downs' management. "We've got a good crowd, and the numbers from mutuels are good."

Asked how this opening day compared to last year's, Mooney said: "I can't begin to tell you how much better this is. Last year at 10 o'clock we were still cleaning up from construction. This year we were welcoming fans."

Fans waited in long lines in their cars getting into the parking lot, and then again in long lines getting into the track. Mooney said he wasn't pleased with how parking and admissions workers, LTC many inexperienced, dealt with the crowds.

Other complaints surfaced -- nothing major, but the kind that continually hamper this track. Trainers were miffed because they couldn't lock their offices on the backside. The tack room doors had locks, but no one had keys.

Workers from Maryland complained of preparations not completed until the last minute or not completed at all.

The Maryland Jockey Club signed a contract to manage Colonial Downs' thoroughbred meet in return for 2 percent of most money wagered at the track and its four off-track betting sites. But Colonial Downs, which expects to lose $5 million to $6 million this year, hasn't paid that fee since late last year.

That dispute, the subject of ongoing arbitration, threatens to poison the partnership between Maryland and Virginia, the first interstate racing cooperative in the country.

Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, did not attend yesterday's opening day. Jeffrey P. Jacobs, chairman, president and CEO of Colonial Downs, said the conflict is "just an honest difference of opinion."

Neither man expects the arbitrator's ruling until after this meet ends Oct. 11.

Yesterday, horses trained and ridden by Marylanders won every race. Mario Pino rode three winners. Prado, Johnston and Mario Verge rode two each.

Prado claimed the biggest prize by keeping Ops Smile closer to the snail-paced leaders than usual and then urging him down the stretch for a length victory in the Bald Eagle Breeders' Cup.

Boniface, who trains the gray 6-year-old, said he'll race twice more -- the Turf Classic at Belmont Park and the Breeders' Cup Turf at Churchill Downs -- before retiring to stud at Boniface's Bonita Farm in Harford County.

Pub Date: 9/08/98

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