State law undercuts inaugural Va. Derby Statute blocks ride of Hall of Fame's Day

October 03, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW KENT COUNTY, Va. -- If Colonial Downs is going to save face after sustaining a series of black eyes during its second thoroughbred meeting, it's going to happen today with the running of the inaugural Virginia Derby on its widely praised turf course.

But the Virginia Derby, before it even starts, has sustained a black eye of its own.

The 1 1/4 -mile race for 3-year-olds with a purse of $250,000 was lucrative enough to attract perhaps the most recognizable jockey in the sport, Pat Day. But Virginia's unusually strict regulations for licensing track personnel prevented Day, a member of racing's Hall of Fame, from coming.

Virginia law mandates that no one with a conviction involving drugs can be licensed. Day was convicted in 1975 of possessing marijuana.

No matter that Day, a born-again Christian, is now one of $H racing's great ambassadors and is permitted to ride in other states and around the world.

Racing fans in Virginia, striving to learn the sport, have been deprived of seeing in person one of racing's all-time greats. And the Virginia Derby and its supporting All Along Stakes have been stripped of their possible favorites, Keene Dancer and Cuando, the two horses Day was to ride. Partly because of the loss of Day, their Kentucky-based trainer, David Carroll, scratched them.

That casts a brown colt named Crowd Pleaser into the role of lukewarm morning-line favorite in the Virginia Derby. In his last race, the 1 3/16-mile Saranac Handicap on the Saratoga turf, Crowd Pleaser handed Parade Ground his only loss on grass.

Parade Ground, who ran in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont before switching to turf, was a hopeful for the Virginia Derby. Despite his loss after encountering traffic problems, he is considered perhaps the top 3-year-old turf runner in the country.

His trainer, Neil Howard, said he considered the Virginia Derby, but opted for a longer turf race at Belmont Park, last Sunday's 1 1/2 -mile Lawrence Realization Handicap. Parade Ground won, prompting Howard to pencil in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf on Parade Ground's schedule.

Asked whether Colonial Downs' woes -- a sharp decline in attendance and handle -- had influenced his decision, Howard said: "No, I didn't even know about that. I love the place. I'd been looking forward to getting back down there."

Howard ran a horse here last year.

Jonathan Sheppard, who trains Crowd Pleaser, said he still isn't sure how good his colt is, despite the four-length, driving win at 28-1 odds over Parade Ground.

"He surprised me, to be honest," said Sheppard, who splits his stable between Delaware Park and his farm in West Grove, Pa. "But judging from the way he ran that last race, he's pretty good. We'll find out more about him [today]."

Bill Mott, Billy Turner, Roger Attfield and Shug McGaughey also entered horses in the Virginia Derby, as did the Maryland trainers Larry Lawrence and Richard Small.

But the day may belong to MATCH (Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championships), the innovative series that concludes with five races at four tracks, including two at Colonial Downs.

Bursting Forth in the All Along Stakes and Klabin's Gold and Power By Far in the Montpelier are competing for the overall championship and $100,000 in bonuses for their owner and $40,000 for their trainer.

"I think the series is great," said Sam Huff, the Hall of Fame football player who owns Bursting Forth. "It's wonderful for the mid-Atlantic states. It gives us something nobody else has."

Pub Date: 10/03/98

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