by Nick Hahn

Both horses and the turf are “coming in” for the Colonial Downs meet that opens on Saturday, Colonial officials told the Virginia Racing Commission on Wednesday, May 29.

The backstretch of Colonial was stabling approximately 150 horses of the 850 stall applications it had received for its 25-day meet that opens June 8.  In previous years when Colonial offered more days, stall applications ran close to 1200, but according to Racing Director, Tyler Picklesimer issues in Florida and the shorter meet have lowered applications.  Colonial can stable approximately 1000 horses on its backstretch.

“Local Virginia folks would appreciate a longer meet.  Unfortunately, we don’t have the purse money to facilitate that and compete against mid-Atlantic tracks,” explained Picklesimer.  “We shortened the meet up trying to get the purse money up.”

Colonial's turf course is looking good as the opening of the meet nears.  Photo by Nick Hahn.

Colonial’s turf course is looking good as the opening of the meet nears. Photo by Nick Hahn.

Colonial’s maiden special weight races, previously run for purses of $23,000, will carry a $30,000 pot — about 25% higher.  The increase is typical across other levels of racing that Colonial offers, known for its unique opportunity to run full fields of claiming level races on the turf.

Picklesimer attributed the decline in stall applications to the shorter meet and to issues in Florida; Calder and Gulfstream are expected both to race this summer, in a break from previous years.  For example, Florida-based trainer Kathleen O’Connell, a staple in the Colonial stables the last several years, won’t be housing horses at Colonial this year.  However mainstays like Ferris Allen, Hugh McMahon, Jamie Ness, Wesley Ward, Burton Sipp, Jonathan Sheppard and Michael Trombetta have all reserved stalls on the Colonial backstretch.

“We lost some programs but we picked up some outfits too,” adds Picklesimer.

Opening day will be somewhat historic in that racing will occur in Virginia and Maryland on the same day for the first time.  Ironically, a key — if not the key — factor in awarding the original license to Colonial Downs in 1994 was the establishment of the Maryland-Virginia Racing Circuit, an agreement that ensured the two states wouldn’t race concurrently.  Fortunately, the overlap is only one day.

“We’ve had some hurdles with staffing,” explained Tyler Pickelsimer, the racing director at Colonial Downs.  “A lot of our crew comes from Maryland; the racing office, the valets, the starting gate crew.  We’ve been able to piece together crews from Charles Town, Delaware, Turfway and the like.  It’s come together pretty nicely.”

Meanwhile, the Secretariat Turf Course at Colonial Downs, intentionally torched two months ago as part of track superintendent’s J.D. Thomas spring ritual, is fully grown in.  The signature feature of Colonial Downs, blackened by fire and an application of crumb rubber just after the running of the Dogwood Classic races in early April, has returned to its lush green status.

Colonial Downs barbeques its Bermuda grass.

Just a few weeks ago, that lush green course was aflame.  Photo Darryl Wood, Colonial Downs.

When is a sale not a sale?

It’s been widely reported that Colonial’s owner Jeffrey Jacobs intends to sell Jacobs Entertainment to MTR Gaming (here).  However, the transaction may be more of a purchase of MTR Gaming than the sale of Colonial Downs and other assets of Jacobs Entertainment, Inc.  Jacobs, who currently owns approximately 18% of MTR Gaming common stock, would receive MTR Gaming common stock valued at $144.5 million as part of the deal.

Colonial Downs’ president and CFO Ian Stewart told the Commission Wednesday that, should the transaction happen according to plan, Jacobs would become an estimated 60% owner of MTR Gaming stock.  According to Stewart, the transaction would be a “reverse acquisition.”  Whether considered a sale or purchase, the deal would be subject to the approval of the Virginia Racing Commission with its status only in the beginning stages.

Jacobs Entertainment owns two Colorado casinos, three Nevada casinos and 23 video poker truck stops in Louisiana in addition to Colonial Downs and its 10 off-track better centers in Virginia.  MTR Gaming is comprised of Mountaineer Casino in West Virginia, Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania, and Scioto Downs harness track and slots facility near Columbus, Ohio.