Colonial slow leaving '98 gate Track's second year shows steep declines

September 30, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Although expectations are high for Colonial Downs' marquee event, the inaugural Virginia Derby on Saturday, attendance and betting figures for the first three weeks of the current meet are bleak.

Not once during the first 16 days of Colonial Downs' second thoroughbred meet has attendance or on-track betting exceeded the corresponding day last year. Overall, this year's figures are down sharply.

After 16 days last year, attendance at Maryland's partner track in southern Virginia averaged 3,508. This year after 16 days (through Monday), attendance averaged 2,106 -- a decrease of 1,402, or 40 percent.

And last year, betting at the track on live and simulcast races after 16 days averaged $227,646. This year, that figure is $165,130 -- down $62,516, or 27 percent.

On opening day Sept. 7, Jeffrey Jacobs, chairman, president and CEO of Colonial Downs, said: "After this meet is over, we're going to have to make some hard decisions about the future of Colonial Downs."

In a brief telephone interview yesterday, he tried painting a rosy picture, saying that total handle is up this year over last year. The reason for that, however, is the track operates two more off-track betting parlors than it did a year ago.

And, he said, total betting on Mondays, when Colonial Downs hoped to fill a simulcast niche, routinely exceeds $1 million. Overall, however, out-of-state betting on Colonial Downs, expected to increase because of the new turf course, lags about 15 percent behind last year.

As for on-track attendance (730 people showed up Monday), Jacobs said: "You'd always like to have more people at the track betting on your live product. But we're developing a core customer base of somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500."

Despite Jacobs' assessment, his vice president and chief operating officer, Ian Stewart, said this week about Jacobs' ominous opening day remark: "Jeff's statement still stands."

Because of the disturbing numbers, talk in the industry seldom centers on the splendid grass and dirt tracks. Fumed Lenny Hale, Colonial Downs' racing secretary: "My biggest problem is battling all the rumors."

Several trainers from Philadelphia Park called and said they weren't sending horses because they'd heard the purse account was broke, Hale said. No, he told them, money for purses the rest of the meet was secure in a protected account. Still, a couple of the trainers kept their horses home.

Then Hale confronted the rumor that the man who delivered straw to the track hadn't been paid and had quit, leaving the receiving barn without bedding. Not true, Hale said. He said the same about a similar rumor involving the driver of the van shuttling horses between Maryland and Virginia.

"That's the biggest problem we've had, battling all this," Hale said.

That and filling dirt races at night. Racing has suffered during the week because of the late post times and early darkness. Lights illuminate only the dirt track, preventing Hale from scheduling races on the more popular turf course.

But even turf racing lately seems vexed. On Saturday, a competitive field of eight in a $30,000 turf stakes ended up a field of two after six horses were scratched for one reason or another (none apparently having to do with track finances).

And Sunday, in a $50,000 turf stakes, a horse trained by Bill Mott, one of the country's best known trainers, broke down and was euthanized. The horse's jockey stressed afterward that the track wasn't at fault. Jockeys and trainers continue to praise the grass and dirt tracks as among the best and safest in the country.

At the behest of horsemen, Colonial Downs has even added a turf stakes, the $35,000 York Stakes on Monday for fillies and mares going 1 1/2 miles.

And Saturday's Virginia Derby, a $250,000 stakes on turf for 3-year-olds going 1 1/4 miles, has been greatly anticipated since the day Jacobs declared it would become one of the top sports events in Virginia.

Whether that turns out to be true may depend on how long Colonial Downs stays in business. But more than 100 horses NTC were nominated for the inaugural running, and 11 were entered. Admission for the day is free, and track officials expect more than 10,000 patrons.

Still, complaints from Marylanders persist about licensing regulations, problems finding help on the backstretch and track employees who don't know what they're doing.

One Maryland horse owner went to a window to wager on his horse. He said: "A hundred across." The mutuel clerk looked puzzled. "We can't do that," she said. He explained he meant $100 to win, $100 to place and $100 to show. "Oh," she said. She punched out the tickets.

And Marylanders continue to complain about not only poor management but also management's arrogance.

"I was one of the first ones to go down there," said H. Graham Motion, a trainer at Laurel Park. "But the place is no better organized than it was last year.

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