Colonial Downs: Shift in days could bring challenges

Looking to improve on-track attendance, Colonial Downs officials received a thumbs-up from the Virginia Racing Commission to race a Thursday-through-Saturday schedule in 2023 after having raced Monday through Wednesday last year in the track’s most successful year ever.

While many, including some on the Commission, have pined for more weekend days in New Kent, the state horsemen’s group had a somewhat cool response, suggesting instead a Sunday-Tuesday schedule.

“The new management struck on a very successful economic business plan, as well as a fan base,” Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association executive director Frank Petramalo told the Commission at Wednesday’s meeting. “We are in the digital age and have been for years. Most racing is watch on TV and on the Internet. We established ourselves in that [early week] market, and we are beating everyone else. We’ve got the whole market to ourselves.”

Colonial, now owned by Churchill Downs, Inc., will race 27 days under the approved schedule for 2023. The meet will kick off Thursday, July 13 and run through Saturday, September 9. That will put Colonial in head-to-head competition for the gambling dollar with Saratoga and virtually every other racetrack.

Jack Sours, Vice-President of Gaming Operations for CDI, said that the shift to weekend racing will give the company “a good first step to allow us to get our feet on the ground.” 

“It is our long-term goal to race on weekends and increase attendance,” Sours added. “On Thursdays and Fridays, we feel that there is an opportunity for corporate groups and corporate outings. We’ve had success in other venues doing this marketing for corporate outings and bringing people in.”

Of particular importance to the company, executives said, is growing the track’s national and regional reputation by turning Saturdays into big days.

“Make Saturday racing here a really big thing. That will allow thousands of Virginians to come out and enjoy that day,” CDI Executive Director of Racing Gary Palmisano told the Commission.

To accomplish that, the new calendar sets the Virginia Derby on closing day, September 9 and tentatively sets August 12 as the date when Colonial will host the Arlington Million, Beverly D and Secretariat Stakes. All three were formerly contested at the now-shuttered Arlington Park, and the Million and Beverly D are both Grade 1 events. The latter was a “win and you’re in” for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

“Those are three historically important races,” said Palmisano. “We all know this (2023) is the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s Kentucky Derby win. We think that’s an actual play to get another day where thousands of Virginians are out here on a Saturday.”

Other Saturdays would include family days and Virginia stakes day, an event in 2022 that was a record-setting day.

“Our vision here is to blow up Saturdays and to make them as big and as best as we can make them, catch our breath on Sunday and try to learn this operation, try to understand, and move forward,” explained Palmisano. “We could have hit the easy button and ran on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday like every person that we’ve talked to has told us to do. Folks think we’re crazy taking this task on.”

“We agree with the request to run 27 days, three days a week,” Petramalo responded. “We do not agree with the notion of running Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. We think weekend racing is a good idea but not next year (2023). It certainly is important to have fans at the track, but Virginia racing is not simply about Virginians.”

Petramalo pointed out that of the about 2,300 owner and trainer licensees for the meet in 2022 year, only 230 were Virginia residents, 10% of the total. 

“It’s a regional market that we deal with, it’s not simply Virginians,” Petramalo argued. “It’s also reflected in the handle.”

Petramalo said that in 2019, Colonial’s first year back after a six-year shutdown, the average daily out of state handle was $1.1 million when offering Thursday through Saturday racing. Last year on a Monday-Wednesday calendar, it rose to $2.8 million.

But, with the lion’s share of purse revenue generated by historical horseracing machines rather than parimutuel handle, the Commission sided with CDI.

“We owe you the opportunity to do it your way,” Commissioner Stuart Siegel told CDI. Siegel has advocated for a larger weekend presence in past years.

Beyond the hunt for the right spot in the marketplace, the shift could bring other challenges.

For example, Palmisano said he recognized that with the new weekly race schedule, the Virginia track will lose about 50 or so workers from Maryland, including members of the starting gate crews, valets and racing officials. One source for filling the void might be from Churchill tracks the race in the winter, including the Fair Grounds and Turfway Park.

“We can start there with recruiting our own folks at our own places,” said Palmisano. “We understand this challenge, and we just want to learn a little bit more about it and ask for a year for us to try to navigate through this process and kind of make this the best we can make it and let’s reassess.”

Churchill would continue to broadcast racing through TVG.

One area where Colonial has accrued an admirable record is safety. In 2019-2021, the track had just one racing fatality, according to the Equine Injury Database.

Palmisano said he did not expect that to change.

“The crew maintaining the track is not going to change, and we only hope to provide them with more resources to do the work,” he told the Commission.

Palmisano said CDI hopes “to support the bread-and-butter horsemen” that fill Colonial’s backstretch even while the company aims for a more robust stakes program. He said horsemen can expect average daily purses of about $600,000, a number expected to grow in coming years as more HHR machines come online.

In other business, the Commission also approved 14 days of harness racing to be held at Shenandoah Downs in 2023, which for the first time will race in the spring, from April 1 through May 14, Saturday and Sunday at 1 pm.

Earlier in the meeting, Stephanie Nixon was elected chair of the Virginia Racing Commission while Marsha Hudgins was elected vice-chair. The Commission thanked John Marshall and Jill Byrne, who led the team at Colonial, for their work under Colonial’s former owners, Peninsula Partners. Both have left the company, with Marshall becoming president of Revolutionary Racing Kentucky.

“You’ve set the bar high,” noted commissioner Nixon.