As a new resident of the greater Richmond, VA area, I didn’t
know a lot about Colonial Downs. That is until I talked to some key insiders at
the track and found out how cool this summer boutique turf meet is going to be…
Sure, the reputation of Colonial Downs precedes itself. You
know, a TON of turf racing, right? And
who doesn’t like turf racing? Colonial Downs has a rich turf history in their
brief existence and I’ve learned that some of the turf greats of all time have
run there! The list includes Virginia Derby winners English Channel (Breeders’
Cup Turf champion), Kitten’s Joy (Secretariat Stakes champion), Paddy O’Prado
(also a Secretariat Stakes champion), and of course one of my all-time
favorites… GIO PONTI (Arlington Million Champion among others…)!!! One of my
local Chicago favorites, Rahystrada, also won the Colonial Turf Cup in 2011!
Nestled in New Kent County, Virginia, right off of I-64, between
Richmond and Williamsburg, (yes the same I-64 that runs by Churchill and
Keeneland), Colonial Downs opened up its doors in 1997 to a whole new world of
racing in Virginia. The widest turf course in North America (a whopping 180
feet) features two turf courses (on the Secretariat Turf Course) built into one! When split in half it becomes a
7 ½ furlong inner oval and a 1 1/8 mile outer course. That along with the
specialized meet schedule offers a unique experience in racing where most to
all races can be run on the grass. In fact back in 2000, there was a day with
so much rain that some of the races were moved from the dirt to the grass!! When
do you EVER hear of THAT happening??
After speaking with racing secretary Tyler Picklesimer, I
started to get a better feel for what this meet was all about. The main event
of the season is on July 13 where the Grade 2 $500,000 Virginia Derby will be contested
over 1 ¼ miles on the expansive turf course! This serves as a
good prep race for the Secretariat Stakes later in the year at Arlington Park. On
that same day the Grade 3 $150,000 Virginia Oaks will also be run at a distance
of nine furlongs. Additionally that same card features a trio of $75,000 stakes
races as well: the Kitten’s Joy for 3 year olds and upward running at the
Belmont Stakes distance of twelve furlongs, and a pair of juvenile sprint turf races
(the Tippett and the Chenery stakes).
The week before that features the best of Virginia-bred
horses running in five (count-em FIVE) $50,000 stakes races, of course all on
the TURF! The races include the Punch Line, the Oakley, the Bert Allen, the Brookmeade,
and the Jamestown. However the real stakes season gets underway on June 22
where the Grade 2 $300,000 Colonial Turf Cup for 3 year olds and up is run over
9 ½ furlongs! That same day features the Grade 3 $100,000 All Along, the Old
Nelson Handicap, and finally the Da Hoss stakes.
Whoa, for a five week boutique turf meet, that’s quite a
stakes schedule! Coming in from the outside, I didn’t know the schedule was
that good! In fact Colonial Downs if offering increased overnight purses of 25%
over last year!
Curious about this famous turf course, I wanted to learn a
After speaking with JD Thomas, the track superintendent there, I
discovered that this year they took a very unique approach to maintaining the
grass. They burned it down. That is not a misprint; they actually burned it
down to the ground! Well why on earth
would they do that?
WARNING: Questions you wanted to know about maintaining a
turf course but were too afraid to ask… Apparently this is the only race track
in mid-Atlantic with Bermuda grass! OK so this kind of grass goes dormant at 54
degrees and the green part of the grass, or leaf, will not re-green when it’s dormant
(dead). When spring comes, they have to get the dead leaf off of turf course
because the grass will not re-green with the dead layer as it will slow and
choke the growth. With the nutrients present in leaf, burning it puts those nutrients
back into soil and blackens the ground which will cause the sunlight to get
soaked up; also tricking the ground into thinking it’s warmer than it is. WHOA.
Essentially what normally took 10 days to accomplish now took
two hours (versus cutting and blowing). Thomas also says that burning would
work well on any grass! I wonder if Arlington would ever try that. Would you
even try that on your own yard?
Well, Thomas is CERTAINLY proud of his turf course!! So much
so that he will afford me an opportunity to get a closer look at it from the starting
gate!! Thank you for enjoying today’s
So what kinds of special things is Colonial offering for
their fans for this year’s meet? I learned a little about that from Marketing
Manager, Darrell Wood! So it seems like
every weekend they will have something going on whether it is a poker
tournament, ladies’ night, 4th of July, and even camels and ostrich
races on Fathers’ Day! To get even closer to the action, they offer an infield
viewing deck which is on top of tote board! Anyone can walk out there for a free,
spectacular view close to the action! And if that wasn’t good enough, there is
a “tram” hooked up to pick-up truck which gives fans a six minute tour on right
on the dirt track and close to starting gate!
One of the things I like best is the $0.50 pick 3 and 4
wagers! Colonial will also offer an all-stakes pick 5 on Virginia Derby day, and
an all-stakes pick 4 on Turf Cup day!
So who can we expect to see at Colonial Downs this year? Pickelsimer
let me know that Wesley Ward will send in about 15 horses, Jamie Ness will ship
in 6-8, Jonathan Sheppard will ship in 6-8 while regulars Hamilton Smith,
Michael Trombetta, and Ferris Allen will fill out the stables. Sheldon Russell who
led last year’s meet by almost 20 wins, is expected to be back as well as a
majority of the Maryland-based jockey colony!
(Sheldon Russell bobblehead to be given out later in the meet!)
Well there you have it! All you could possibly want to know
about this summer’s Colonial Downs meet! You can bet that I’ll be covering all
of the action for Horse Racing Nation and on Twitter @HRNDarkHorse.
Greetings and welcome to my "dark" blog! I have been a fan of horse racing since I was about 12 years old. Growing up in Minnesota, my dad would take me and my brothers to Canterbury Downs and I would practically beg to go every weekend!! I made my first "big" score there hitting the win, place, and exacta in the same race at age 14 (pulled in $84 with horses named Railroad Red and Racers Dream!). I even had a poster in my bedroom of Lost Code winning the 1987 St. Paul Derby!
While finishing school in Chicago, I spent every possible moment at Arlington Park with my dad. We took the time to develop computer programs (on the ever popular Lotus 1-2-3 for DOS) to try to find patterns and handicap races more accurately. My dad taught me a lot about handicapping races, paying particular attention to class moves!
Since then, I have become more involved with horse racing each passing year through a variety of different media-based roles. Once deemed the "second best racing ambassador in Chicago" (hey I've been called worse), I now reside in the Mid-Atlantic Region of the USA and will be covering many different aspects of racing - in my unpredictable DARK HORSE STYLE!