By T. D. Thornton
When Colonial Downs reopens for 15 days of live Thoroughbred racing in 2019 for the first time in six years, its race meet will occupy a new slot on the calendar different from the June/July schedule that had been the norm prior to closure.
Exactly when is currently being negotiated. But as the track’s new owner, Revolutionary Racing, attempts to carve out a niche on the highly competitive mid-Atlantic circuit, Colonial intends to fully leverage its two most valuable assets in an attempt to become a regional–maybe even national–impact player: A nine-furlong, 180-foot-wide jewel of a turf course that can accommodate numerous rail placements and races each day, plus a purse structure that will be bolstered for the first time by revenue from historical horse racing (HHR) gaming machines.
“One scenario we’re looking at is filling the gap between Laurel, Timonium and back to Laurel,” John Marshall, Colonial’s senior vice president and general manager, told TDN in a Monday phone interview. Such an August dates placement would take advantage of the geographic lull of turf racing that annually occurs when neighboring Maryland shifts to its dirt-only fairgrounds bullring for a brief meet.
“A second scenario that we’ve examined very closely is potentially opening in late September, after Kentucky Downs, Monmouth Park, and the Meadowlands all-turf meet,” Marshall explained. “Racing into October, we could be the second-highest purse level nationally in that spot, second to only Keeneland for those 15 days.
“The other thing that that time slot does for us is it makes a natural spot for the migration of horses from the Northeast heading to Gulfstream and Tampa for the winter. We’ve got geography in our favor [for outfits] to stop in and run for some great purses and do some training and stabling before heading south,” Marshall said.
Exact purse levels are also still under negotiation, Marshall said. He added that Colonial will no longer host an autumn Standardbred meet like the previous operator did, which puts fall dates in play for Thoroughbreds.
“For 2019, we know we’re going to run 15 live race dates,” Marshall said. “For 2020, we’re looking at 30 live race dates. We have not projected beyond that. As we examine both options one and two, we certainly need our horsemen and the racing commission to be on board, and we’re looking to cooperate with as many racetracks as possible.”
But cooperation doesn’t always come easily in the mid-Atlantic, where competition for entries is already fierce, in part because the region is the most densely clustered area in the country for Thoroughbred racetracks.
“We’re fully open to cooperate with all of the constituents in the industry. We’re a very cooperative and collaborative group,” Marshall said. “Where we run into difficulty is where we look to cooperate with one [track], we impose upon another. So there’s really no silver bullet that maximizes cooperation with all racetracks. But our doors are open [to hear ideas from] all the racetracks in the mid-Atlantic and maybe even beyond.”
Mark Hubbard, a spokesperson for the track, said Colonial just received word Monday that regulations approved last week by the Virginia Racing Commission for 3,000 HHR machines at the track and its statewide off-track-betting (OTB) network were okayed by the governor and the attorney general, meaning the opening for simulcasting and HHR gaming at Colonial is on schedule for next April.
Marshall said that when his transition team first arrived at Colonial in July, they were “pleasantly surprised” at how little the infrastructure had deteriorated since the track’s last live racing season in 2013.
“Everything was well-maintained over the past four years. The previous owner invested in maintaining the conditions of the property,” Marshall said.
Marshall spoke in particularly glowing terms about Colonial’s calling card–its massive and lush grass course that in previous years handled the burden of close to 90% of the races carded at the track.
“The turf course was race-ready the day we moved in, and we’ve maintained that condition,” Marshall said. “It’s starving for horses to be on it, and the stable area could accept horses at any moment.”
In May, the Colonial turf course underwent its annual controlled burn to remove invasive weeds and provide nutrients for new growth.
“It’s part of the maintenance program,” Marshall said. “Since then it’s been maintained so well that we haven’t had any weed intrusion. That was the main reason [the burns] were done, to bring back as much of the Bermuda turf as we could, because we did have some intrusion on the outside and inside [of the course]. This turf course has got to be in the best condition it’s ever been, today.”
The grandstand and clubhouse are a blur of daily construction as part of an overall facelift and image change, which will feature an industrial-modern look. In what is quite possibly a racing industry first, an all-female design firm, Within Interior Design, Inc., of Norfolk, Virginia, was hired to renovate the 21-year-old facility
“This is not going to be your father’s racetrack,” Hubbard said. “Horse racing is very much a centerpiece of this project, but we’re presenting it in a way that no one’s ever seen before.”
Marshall explained further: “We understand that our main demographic for HHR business is going to be predominantly females 55-years-plus. The challenge that we posed to Within was to consider this job as designing a sports bar for women. What would it look like? So we are going to lean toward feminine design in a lot of ways.
“Traditionally, we all know racetracks to be attractions to men, 60-plus, with cigar smoke and mutuel tickets on the floor,” Marshall continued. “In this case, you’ll walk through the main entrance and be greeted with a lot of equine imagery, modern art, modern décor. It’s going to be high-energy, fast-paced. You’re going to see very modern finishes, a lot of metals and irons, [accented by] pastel colors, different textures. And you’re going to feel as though you’re not in a racetrack, but you’ve got the option to go out on the apron and enjoy racing as we all know it.”
Colonial has also set aside 300 acres on the property for special-event use that is already being booked into the spring and summer of 2019. Food and beverages will have local ties where possible, Marshall added, featuring wines from New Kent County and a dozen Virginia-area craft beers on tap.
“We’re going to appeal to entertainment and service from a mainstream perspective, and not necessarily focus on the traditional horseplayer-only” mindset, Marshall summed up.