Va. Derby changes Colonial Downs' tune Record $2,169,749 wagered on races at troubled track

Crowd Pleaser wins event

October 04, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW KENT COUNTY, Va. -- It wasn't "My Old Kentucky Home." But the singing of "Virginia" before the inaugural Virginia Derby yesterday brought a tear to the eye of many at Colonial Downs.

On a cool, clear, refreshing fall day, 8,103 fans jammed this track in southern Virginia for its signature event. For the first time in the brief history of the troubled track, everything went smoothly. Everybody seemed happy. And bettors here and across the country wagered $2,169,749 on Colonial Downs' races, easily a record.

"A lot of planning and setup went into this day," said John Mooney, the Maryland Jockey Club chief operations officer who assisted the Virginia management. "It's the smoothest day of this magnitude we've ever had.

"Everybody seems to be enjoying themselves. I think they sense they're a part of history with the inaugural Virginia Derby."

The winner was appropriately named: Crowd Pleaser.

The bettors' choice at 7-5, he tracked the early leaders and then exploded around the turn, down the homestretch and finally across the wire, winning the 1 1/4 -mile race for 3-year-olds by three commanding lengths.

Like 10 of yesterday's 11 races, the Virginia Derby took place on grass. Again, the turf course generated praise from local and national jockeys alike.

Jean-Luc Samyn, Crowd Pleaser's jockey, called it "fabulous."

Shane Sellers, who rode runner-up Distant Mirage, said: "It's a great turf course, as good as any I've ever been on.

"They ran how many races on it, 10 out of 11? It doesn't even look like they've run any at all. Any other turf course I've ever been on, you can run two or three, and then you've got to take it onto the dirt."

The third-largest crowd at Colonial Downs, including some who came primarily for a concert by country singer David Lee Murphy, bet $454,219 on the live and simulcast races. That's the second-largest output in the track's two-year history.

It won't salvage a five-week meet of distressingly low attendance and handle. But it did show that Colonial Downs, roundly criticized for poor management and planning, can put on a first-class show in a first-class facility.

The meet ends next Sunday. Racing returns Oct. 14 to Laurel Park.

The Virginia Derby, with its $250,000 purse, lured horses from the stables of Bill Mott, Billy Turner and Shug McGaughey at Belmont Park; Roger Attfield at Woodbine; and Larry Murray and Richard Small in Maryland.

But Jonathan Sheppard, the legendary steeplechase trainer, saddled the winner. Crowd Pleaser has won three of six on turf including the 1 3/16-mile Saranac Handicap Sept. 5 at Saratoga. Bettors then sent him off at 28-1. He even surprised Sheppard.

"This underlined the fact that his last win wasn't a fluke, because that was so much better than any of his previous races," said Sheppard, who splits his stable between Delaware Park and his farm at West Grove, Pa.

Crowd Pleaser answered emphatically, overcoming a first-turn bump and four-wide position around the far turn to run the course in an impressive 2 minutes, 1/5 second.

The son of A. P. Indy paid $4.80 and headed a $13.60 exacta with the 2-1 second-choice Distant Mirage, trained by Mott. The trifecta with McGaughey's 15-1 Errant Escort third returned $103.60.

As the horses paraded before the Virginia Derby, the singer Jimmy Dean and his wife Donna, who live in the state, led the singing of a song they wrote, aptly titled "Virginia."

The chorus went: "Virginia, dear old Virginia, there's no place on earth I'd rather be. Virginia, sweet old Virginia, my Old Dominion home keeps calling me."

Yesterday, for once, the words rang true.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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