Sixteen Years Later, Colonial Downs Still Fighting for the Lead

by | 07.15.2013 | 11:57am
Racegoers file into Colonial Downs in New Kent, Va. ahead of the 2013 Virginia Derby

It's 6:10 p.m. on Saturday at Colonial Downs, two hours before the post time of the track's biggest race of the year, and from inside the press box you can tell there's a crowd outside.

Even when the band, which seems to be playing covers typical of wedding receptions, takes a break, there's a buzz rising from the apron. Fans are two or three deep in spots along the rail, and the crowd thickens once the horses leave the paddock for the post parade. It's not quite standing room only—a few families have brought folding chairs or quilts, treating the night like a picnic— but it's close. There are groups of girls wearing fancy hats like the ones they'd seen on TV this past May; families with little kids; young couples out for a date.

On Friday night, the eve of Virginia Derby day, the crowd was lighter but its demographics weren't much different. People gathered in clusters wherever the horses were, trying to sort out which number they thought was prettiest, or which one Horacio Karamanos was on.

I can remember nights several years ago, and certainly daytime cards just after the track's opening, when there was no competition for a rail spot, and most of the crowd was hardcore gamblers crowded around the televisions indoors.

In its 16-year history, Colonial Downs has made gains, says president Ian Stewart, achieving something that many mid-level racetracks find difficult—it's drawing business both from casual fans and from local handicappers, although most of its handle is off-track these days.

The key has been the OTB system, which includes nine off-track parlors as far as 500 miles from the track—all of them near population centers in the state.

“Live racing is about five percent of our business,” said Stewart. “It's the smallest part of our business, but it's the most prominent part of our business. Most of our business is OTBs and on the Internet.”

Besides the OTBs, Colonial Downs owns the state's largest account wagering system – EZ Horseplay – a network of 100 electronic kiosks in bars and restaurants across Virginia. The 4-year-old system takes cash, provides tutorials, and requires less information to create an account than the average online system. So far it's drawing people into betting the races who might not notice the Colonial Downs sign out on the interstate.

On track, Stewart said fans come from Richmond and Williamsburg, both about 30 miles away along I-64. He said New Kent County locals have been supportive.

Fans gather to watch the horses parade at Colonial Downs

Fans gather to watch the horses parade at Colonial Downs

The track is also facing the challenges of a mid-level racetrack; it's difficult to grow the sport from year to year and compete with the other entertainment options in the state during the summertime. It's simplest to focus on growing attendance on major stakes cards and holidays like Independence Day and Father's Day.

Attendance and handle were down last year, and most of the wagering returns to the state were eaten up by the costs of regulating racing. In past years, track owner Jeffrey Jacobs has threatened to close or sell the facility.

Colonial has never been a destination racetrack, except for Virginia and Maryland horsemen, who battle interstate congestion to ship horses there. The drive from either large city nearby is often plagued with stop-and-go traffic in the summer as beach-goers head to or away from the coast, particularly on the weekends.

“I don't know how many afternoons we left our crowd out on I-64,” Stewart said. This year, officials switched all but Sunday races to evening cards to make the commute easier.

The rain has been a problem this year, too—summer evening downpours have soaked the signature turf course and kept crowds away some days.

On Virginia Derby day, one brief but violent downpour soaks the area once more before the start of the first race, but the sun comes out on revelers at the “Thrill on the Hill,” a tailgating area set up on the turn. By the first stakes race on the card, it is standing room only on the apron, and tables and stools inside are occupied.

Audrii Boslego is watching the gathering crowd from the fourth floor of the grandstand for her tenth Virginia Derby, and in it she sees the same struggle that most racetracks are having these days—not enough growth, and not enough new blood.

“I feel like it's been pretty consistent with attendance the last nine years, and I really don't think there's been much change as far as the crowd that it draws,” she said.

“I think that they've tried, and they haven't really been successful [at getting new racegoers]. I don't think Colonial Downs has changed that much. And I think that's the problem.

“You don't really get a whole lot of young people and that's kind of a shame, but that's just the market I guess … I lived on the track for two or three years, and it's really in the middle of nowhere. You can't drink unless you get a designated driver to come with you, and you couldn't take a cab because it's so expensive to get anywhere. There aren't even hotels nearby.”

Virginia Derby day is the biggest day of the year at Colonial Downs

Virginia Derby day is the biggest day of the year at Colonial Downs

As the start of the Derby approaches, the crowd cheers when the announcer notes five minutes to post. The fans roar as the field takes the first few jumps out of the gates, and they gasp as War Dancer edges Charming Kitten and Jack Milton at the wire, with only a few feet separating the trio.

The Virginia Derby achieved Grade 3 status in 2004 and improved to Grade 2 in 2006; it's been won by the likes of English Channel, Kitten's Joy, and Gio Ponti over the years but Boslego fears the race has slipped in the national turf scene. It was once linked in the Grand Slam of Grass with Arlington's Secretariat Stakes, the Colonial Turf Cup, and Breeders' Cup Turf, but the series and its $5 million bonus were discontinued in 2010. It is no longer shown on mainstream or local television.

“I think the shirts are a good indicator,” joked Boslego, shaking the paper gift shop bag she's been holding. “They didn't even print the winners on them.”

The revelers from the fourth-floor sky suites are filing out past us ahead of the ninth race.

Outside, the air is heavy with humidity. Frogs chirp through the fog that's collecting under the lights on the turf course and clouding the windows on the face of the grandstand, reminding exiting fans that we're closer to a state forest than a city.

In a way for Boslego though, the attendance numbers, the frogs, and the shirts are secondary.

“I got hooked on racing in 2004 when I was sitting with my dad and I picked Kitten's Joy for some reason that I think made no sense, and then he won,” remembered Boslego, who is now approaching graduation from the University of Kentucky's equine science program with dreams of becoming a trainer. “And once you pick the winner, especially in a big race, you want to come back. I just fell in love with the sport.

“Selfishly I'm thankful that it's here … without this track, my life would be totally different.”

And like so many mid-level tracks, the impact Colonial Downs has on the industry may be beyond the numbers. It may be inspiring fans like Boslego who just keep coming back.

In fact, that may be what it's banking on.

  • 2galsracing

    I am grateful to have Colonial Downs to go to. i brought three new racing fans with me from North Carolina to July 13 and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. This is a lovely track with very good customer service that appreciate their fans. Good job Colonial Downs. My friends and I will be back next year for the Turf Cup and Derby.

    • ezbreeze

      2gals – you must be a CLN plant. Good customer service?! Can you give us an example?

      • 2galsracing

        Sure- when purchasing my tickets to the event they were courteous, suggested seating that I loved, the waitress at our table was attentive, all the employees I encountered were friendly, doors were opened for me and the car valet service was quick and everything was very reasonably priced. I am certainly not a plant. There could been more selections on the food menu but other than that, I have not complaints. I still say, “Good job Colonial Downs.”

  • C Hogan

    I will never go back to Colonial Downs. I drove 1600 mile round trip from Louisville Ky. for a NTRA contest when I got out of my car I got my form, glasses, pen and a 8 ounce bottle of water I slipped in my back pocket. When I went thru the gate I was surrounded by 2 guards and I thought they were going to take me to jail. Their food is a joke. Not EVER going back.

  • Dave

    I live less than an hour from Colonial and used to visit often. It is a nice track. But the ADW fiasco a few years ago turned me off it. Virginia passed a law mandating an outrageous 10% source market fee for all ADW wagers placed in the ENTIRE STATE of Virginia, of which half goes to Colonial, which puts on all of 30-40 days of thoroughbred racing a year. So yes, as Mr. Stewart says, live racing is a very small part of Colonial’s business. They sit back and collect undeserved money the entire year.

    Haven’t been back there since, don’t ever plan to return and I’ve pretty much given up on playing the horses rather than throw money their way.

  • 4Bellwether666

    The word on the street is Mountaineer Park is going to purchase 65% of CD…

    • Michael Fisher


      • 4Bellwether666

        Maybe they can turn it around???…The same clowns have been running it for sixteen years…

  • ezbreeze

    I appreciate and enjoyed the article here from Ms. Voss but I feel the need to sound off a bit.
    Let me present to you one of many examples that goes to support the fact that Mr. Stewart and Co. are resting on the OTB safety net they have when it comes to customer service. I’m a regular handicapper (punter if you will) and go to the OTB regularly, and the track for live racing when I can. But, their service to the public isn’t worthy of the product they produce, which is quite good. For example, on Derby night just past, I had an Equibase program I’d printed at home vice the Colonlal book. My friend from N.C. and I decided to play the pic 5 which the Equibase program presented in races 5 thru 9. After picking our selections when I went to the self service machine I found that there was only a pic 3. I asked a CLN official and was told Equibase had fouled up their racing data. (Oh yea, in the Derby race Equibase and DRF programs listed a horse at 3-1 odds but the Colonlal program listed that same horse at 30-1 (the true odds). The fact that both Equibase and DRF had the same “mistake” tells me it was really a mistake by the Colonial mutual director Jeff (who makes no effort to hide the fact that he is a clown). Ian Stewart, “C’mon man! How much handle do you think Jeff lost you on Derby night? You only have Derby night once a year, is it really to much for us to expect you to get it right?

  • Miss the Magic

    Colonial is a great facility but they hate their customers and live racing. I tried to take an owner for dinner it was not easy after going up to the restaurant I had to go back down and get an arm band, then we stood and waited for a table there must have been fifteen people in the area, five of them employees standing at the host’s stand talking. The food was not good, we ask if they could leave the potatoes off NO could not do that, but they could give us a plate to scrape them off on.

  • 4Bellwether666

    Lets hope and pray for the betterment of Horse racing in Va. they sell the place to some folks that know how to run and promote it even if it is located in no mans land…

  • thevoiceoftruth69

    They should run their meet in March and April.

    • 4Bellwether666

      That would be better weather and a lot less traffic but they don’t have the product/location to bump heads with Maryland…Not that Maryland (just more Horses) is much better!!!…

      • thevoiceoftruth

        Maryland goes dark then runs Pimlico deeper into the summer. wasn’t suggesting they try to go head to head with maryland.

  • Tod Adamson

    It would be better if they had built CD in Warrenton or Culpepper.

    • 4Bellwether666

      How about Richmond or Hampton Roads???…

  • we’re watching

    Built it in the middle of nowhere. That tells the story right there. One cannot gain momentum being in the middle of desolation and bumper to bumper traffic to get there. Bad idea from the start, a shame too, I live in Va but it’s too far to get to a nice facility like that.

  • TPS Stable

    I will never go back to CLN. Management treats the fans and horsemen alike – with indifference. That’s worse than hating them. I’ve been to every major track in the country and all CLN management would need to do is visit Oaklawn or Arlington to get an idea how to treat guests, fans, and casual and serious bettors like VIP’s. The physical plants in MD are awful but MJC management is the very best at knowing how to treat owners and trainers.
    I agree with thevoice that CLN is running at the wrong time. But I would propose to the MRC that when making their 2014 calendar the MJC should race Pimlico the same but come back to Laurel in the summer then break right after MD Million in Oct/Nov and let CLN run then when their grass is still green but the beach crowds and congestion on I-64 are gone. MJC and CLN don’t have any agreements anymore so MD should be using Laurel’s beautiful turf course to it’s fullest extent.
    After CLN, MD could run for a few weeks in December to decide traditional state-bred baby honors then start up the winter meet.

  • Linda Bogley

    You are such a good writer!!!! I am so proud of you!!!! Linda

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