Colonial Downs celebrates “fantastic” meet

Maybe it was a sign of things to come.

The seventh race of the day on Colonial Downs’s season bow July 7 triggered what has to be among the biggest payouts in the track’s history. Trainer Andrew Dion’s Luca Drew the Ace won easily at odds of 51-1, followed in by Free Flame (61-1) and Westward Look (8-1). Luca Drew the Ace paid $105.20 for the win, and with the favorite finishing out of the money, the $1 exacta returned $3,460.70, with the $1 trifecta good for $52,170.80.

Betting opportunities like that helped spur the New Kent, VA track to record-breaking handle. From the meet’s first winner, The Happy Giant with Forest Boyce aboard, to meet closer Mr Mac Quhae, delivered by jockey Miguel Vasquez, $74,940,840 was wagered on 261 races over the nine-week meet. On the last two days of the meet, the handle tripped over $6 million each – both higher than any previous day in Colonial Downs history.

The daily average handle was just shy of $2.9 million. The average field size at Colonial Downs was a very respectable 8.35 starters per race on cards, contributing to the record handle.

“The entire meet was just fantastic from start to finish,” Colonial Downs Vice President of Racing Operations Jill Byrne said on Off to the Races Radio September 9. “It was a really good meet: very strong support horsemen all around the country and always great support from the Virginia horsemen and Virginia breeders, as well.”

Colonial’s meet opened and closed during the same week as Saratoga’s season but largely avoided competing with the Spa. Colonial’s Monday-Wednesday schedule had just a single weekly day of overlap with Saratoga’s Wednesday-Sunday slate.

“Colonial was spectacular all season – their whole season was great,” said well-known handicapper Barry Spears. “It provided a great alternative when Saratoga and Del Mar weren’t available. The whole week for the whole month of August was great for any horse fan and bettor.”

The Secretariat turf course at Colonial Downs once again appeared supernatural: not a single race was pulled off the turf during the entire meet. One day of racing was canceled because of heat, and those races were made up through the remainder of the season. 

A pair of previous Kentucky Derby starters visited New Kent this meet, along with one potential future Kentucky Derby starter (more about him in a minute).

Necker Island, a 2020 Derby runner, and 2019 starter Roadster both raced in New Kent, though neither won. Necker Island was first past the post in the Chesapeake Stakes August 16 and set what would have been a track record of 1:07.72 for six furlongs. But he was disqualified for bumping Factor It In in the stretch, elevating Jalen Journey to first. That gave Jalen Journey two career stakes wins – both by disqualification.

Roadster’s visit was less memorable – for him, at any rate. He pressed the pace of King Vega in the Buckland Stakes but couldn’t go with that rival. Roadster faded to finish eighth of nine.

King Vega, on the other hand, went on to win easily under Angel Suarez, and the Graham Motion trainee set a track record in the process. King Vega got the nine-furlong distance on the inner turf in 1:48.05 for a new record.

That was one of three track records set during the meet. Also posting records were Chakra and Red Knight. Chakra zipped 6 ½ furlongs on the dirt in 1:15.75 in an August 16 allowance, while Red Knight won the 1 ½-mile Colonial Cup on the inner turf in 2:29.67 July 27.  Red Knight’s record is perhaps less impressive, since it was the first inner-turf 12-furlong race ever at Colonial, but he did validate it with a next-out win in the Grade 2 Kentucky Turf Cup.

There were no thoroughbred hat tricks during the meet, as it was hard enough to win twice. But 19 horses enjoyed repeat trips to the winner’s circle.

With 25 wins Jevian Toledo captured the riding title at Colonial Downs, adding to the list that includes Edgar Prado, Mario Pino, Horacio Karamanos, Ryan Fogelsonger, Rosemary Homeister, Sheldon Russell, and Luis Garcia, among others. Irad Ortiz, Jr., conquered the last two days of the meet, going 9-for-13 (10-for-18 overall in the meet), including a sweep of the Virginia Derby and Virginia Oaks. He added three more stakes wins the following day. Capensis won the Virginia Derby for trainer Todd Pletcher, and Spirit and Glory won the Virginia Oaks for trainer Robert Falcone.  

Wins were well distributed among trainers, and Michael Stidham gathered enough to win the training tile with 13 wins. The meet saw an influx of stables from the closure of Chicago’s Arlington Park, and they performed well throughout the meet. Larry Rivelli with 9 wins, Chris Block with 7 wins, and Mike Campbell with 4 wins were among several Illinois trainers enjoying success at the meet.

We mentioned prior Kentucky Derby starters earlier. Now to the future: Trainer Michelle Lovell brought her improving young phenom Damon’s Mound to Colonial Downs for most of the summer. Damon’s Mound worked largely on Saturday mornings at Colonial Downs, and midway through the meet he shipped to Saratoga to win the Grade 2 Saratoga Special. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile could be on the dance card for this son of Girvin.

Looking ahead, track officials have indicated hoping ultimately to reach 50 days of live racing. In the near term, Darrell Wood indicated on Off to the Races Radio that a 2023 slate including 30 days was under discussion.

And of course, the purchase of Colonial and related properties by Churchill Downs is expected to close late this year.

But for the moment, Colonial officials were happy to reflect on a meet which saw the track rise to newfound prominence.