War Dancer grabs the lead.  Photo by Laurie Asseo.

War Dancer won the most recent running of the Virginia Derby, in 2013. Photo by Laurie Asseo.

by Nick Hahn

A late game application for a single day of racing is serving as a legal placeholder for Colonial Downs and impedes forward motion to reopen off-track betting in Virginia.  The application was made on the morning of a Virginia Racing Commission meeting on July 29th.

The Commission was already looking at an active meeting day when an early morning delivery arrived.  Enclosed was Colonial Downs’s application for a single live racing day on cyber-Monday, November 29th.

By means of legislation that went into effect on July 1st, Colonial, as the “Significant Infrastructure Limited Licensee,” had until August 1st to make application for live racing days in order maintain its position to operate off-track betting. Colonial ceased operation of its off-track betting network in January of 2014 when a dispute with Virginia horsemen arose over the number of live racing days and forced the shutdown.  Had the August 1 deadline passed without an application from Colonial, the nonprofit Virginia Equine Alliance (VEA) could have sought to restart off-track betting in Virginia and had been in the initial stages of doing so.


“The application prevents the VEA from pursuing off-track betting, so it would stymie that initiative,” explained Bernie Hettel, the executive director of the VRC.  “They covered that deadline by a couple days.”

The application reportedly is to hold six races on November 29, and one source indicated that the card may offer two stakes races.  With the high cost of reinstalling Colonial’s dirt course, which has been sitting in a pile on the backstretch for the last two years, November racing would be held on the dormant Bermuda turf.  If the races actually made it to the gate, the Colonial turf would likely be in a similar condition to the Dogwood Races that it hosted in the month of April.

While details of Colonial’s application are being learned, the Virginia horsemen are seeking to preserve the graded stakes races that raced over at the New Kent track.

“We want to come back with a splash,” Frank Petramalo told the Commission.   Petramalo, executive director of the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA), said that horsemen aim to hold those four stakes — previously run as the Grade 3 All Along, Grade 2 Colonial Turf Cup, Grade 3 Virginia Oaks, and Grade 2 Virginia Derby — out of state this fall at Laurel Park while they develop racing venues in northern Virginia, specifically Morven Park near Leesburg.

Earlier this month, Colonial notified Maryland racing officials not to allow the Virginia Derby to move forward, citing trademark and servicemark rights.  Petramalo consulted with the law firm of Smith, Gambrell and Russell who opined that they saw no conflict.  Still, Petramalo reported that the Maryland Jockey Club was hesitant after receiving notice of Colonial’s claim to the race.

Sal Sinatra, general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, said this morning that his company’s lawyers remain in discussion with Colonial’s lawyers and that he hoped to have a resolution shortly.

Under the proposed plan, the $950,000 package of stakes races would be paid primarily by the Virginia purse account.  Maryland’s horsemen would cover the cost of the All Along by using it to replace the $100,000 Lady Baltimore, which was contested under similar conditions.  All of the handle, however, would remain in Maryland.

As proposed, the race formerly known as the Virginia Derby would be run at Laurel Park as the $400,000 Commonwealth Derby (G2) on September 19th.  The $250,000 Commonwealth Turf Cup (G2), formerly run as the Colonial Turf Cup, would be run on the same day.  The $150,000 All Along (G3), originally run in Maryland is slated a week earlier on September 12th.

The $150,000 Commonwealth Oaks (G3), formerly known as the Virginia Oaks would be scheduled for September 26th.  Joining it on that day’s card would be five $60,000 stakes for Virginia-bred/sired horses: the Jamestown for two-year-olds; the Punch Line for three and up and the Oakley for fillies and mares three and up, both going 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf; and the Bert Allen for three and up and Brookmeade for fillies and mares three and up, both going 1 1/16 miles on the turf.  As is the case with the graded events, the Virginia-bred races would be paid for by Virginia’s horsemen, but the wagering revenue would remain in Maryland.


The likely 2016 venue for those races when they move to Virginia would be picturesque Morven Park, located adjacent to the town of Leesburg.  A contract between the VEA and Morven is in the final stages.  The Morven Park Board of Trustees approved terms of the deal at its July 13th meeting.

“The enthusiasm is about the infusion of capital improvements,” observed Hettel.

The VEA is backing $250,000 in re-engineering costs that include a new fencing, an inner rail, paddocks and the restoring the stand.   Prior to Virginia horsemen reaching out, Morven Park was perhaps as little as thirty days out from demolishing its race course that hadn’t seen racing in over a decade as part of equestrian renovation project on the grounds.

Nick Hahn has been covering Virginia racing since before there was a racetrack. His “Off to the Races” radio show is a must-listen, and his “Nick’s Picks” tip sheet is a shortcut to wagering profits at Colonial Downs.