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.
￼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.”
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.
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