Rugged Virginia Derby field shows game plan paying off

Back when Colonial Downs relaunched in 2019 following a six-year hiatus, two things were readily apparent. First, the purses for overnight races – the races that make up the day-to-day racing cards – were terrific. Second, the stakes purses were – given the strength of the overnight dollars – surprisingly modest. Think $250,000 for the track’s signature event, the Virginia Derby.

That was by design, Jill Byrne, who ran Colonial’s racing from its 2019 rebirth through last year and now works for the Virginia Equine Alliance, said earlier this summer.

“You’ve got your bread-and-butter races and horsemen that support you all the time,” she explained. “So you have to have those races with good-quality purses to be able to attract the good horses, good horsemen, and then start building your stakes program. You reestablish yourself as a quality racing place.”

A few years later, the stakes purses are starting to catch up, the Derby’s up to $500,000, and the results are revealing themselves on the racetrack. And that’s to say nothing of the two Grade 1 races and the Grade 2 event that arrived this year from the now-shuttered Arlington Park.

“It was always in my mind that eventually Colonial Downs would be hosting big races,” she said. “The Virginia Derby and the Colonial Cup back in the day were very good races. So working to get those back up to the stature they were but obviously, with Churchill being able to bring races like the Arlington Million, the Beverly D, and the Secretariat here now this year, I mean, obviously, you know, the closing of Arlington, but still, those races coming to Colonial have certainly made me feel like the last four years have have done something to make this place, this facility, the kind of place that people feel those races deserve to be here.”

The result: Colonial’s 27-day meet reaches its conclusion Saturday, and it does so with a bang. The track offers an 11-race card topped by the $500,000, Grade 3 Virginia Derby – one of a half-dozen stakes on tap in New Kent, VA.

Long the centerpiece of the Colonial meet, the Derby this year takes a bit of a back seat, as the track already has hosted the Grade 1 Arlington Million and Beverly D and Grade 2 Secretariat, all of which it inherited from Arlington. But the Virginia Derby, which is the 10th of 11 races with a projected post time of 6:20 EDT, still offers plenty of intrigue.

The race plainly runs through the undefeated Program Trading, the tepid 7-2 morning line choice. Owned by Klaravich Stables, the Chad Brown trainee is three-for-three in his brief career,  his most prominent victory having come last out in the Grade 1 Saratoga Derby when he outslugged Grade 2 winner Webslinger to win by a head. 

Flavien Prat, who has ridden the son of Lope de Vega in his last two, has the return mount. The duo will leave from the far outside, the 11 post. Oddly enough, one of the two nine-furlong races contested on Colonial’s outer turf this year was won by a horse leaving from post 11.

Program Trading likely will be bet down to lower than his morning line odds, so the enterprising bettor may need to search elsewhere for value. 

One runner who might offer some is the Grade 2 winner Gigante. The Virginia-bred pulled a stunner in the Grade 2 Secretariat over the Colonial turf four weeks back, rallying from last of six to win by a neck under Javier Castellano.

Castellano jumps ship, but who could blame him? He has mounts in three Kentucky Downs stakes Saturday worth a combined $3.7 million in purses. Instead, Cristian Torres will do the honors for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.

Speaking of Asmussen, a winner of more than 10,000 races in his career – 10,000! – he’s had a pretty dismal meet in New Kent overall. Asmussen runners are just 3-for-38 at the stand, though he has had a couple of recent winners after starting off an ugh-inducing 1-for-30. On the other hand, a Grade 2 win certainly takes the edge off an otherwise unsatisfying meet.

Gigante won the G2 Secretariat Stakes with Javier Castellano up. Photo by Coady Photography.

Brad Cox sends the intriguing Salute the Stars (4-1) for the Derby, and Maryland-based rider Sheldon Russell has the mount. The Candy Ride colt was a troubled seventh last time out in the Grade 1 Haskell but two back won the Pegasus at Monmouth Park.

Both of those – in fact, his last three in a row – all were on the main track. But his first two career starts, including his maiden-breaker, came on turf at Ellis Park. That maiden win produced four next-out winners, but three of those were on the dirt. Make of that what you will.

Christophe Clement offers Grade 1 Belmont Derby show horse Mondego (5-1), a troubled seventh in the Saratoga Derby and looking for a bounceback. Trevor McCarthy is named.

Graham Motion, expected to send out the favorite in the Virginia Oaks with Mission of Joy, has 15-1 hopeful Dataman for the Derby. Much improved of late, he arrives off a rallying win in the Bald Eagle Derby at Laurel Park and retains the services of jockey Jorge Ruiz.

“I think it really was more about giving him a little break that he had, you know,” Motion explained after the Bald Eagle. “He just, mentally, he’s always been a difficult horse. He’s a Tapit, and he’s very wound up in the morning. But I think we kind of got his number, and I think giving him a little break really, really helped him, and he’s a little bit older now.”

Others who could be prominent include a second Chad Brown trainee in Activist Investing (10-1), a winner of two straight; flashy debut winner Integration (8-1) for Shug McGaughey; and Bald Eagle runner-up Ari Gold (8-1) for Todd Pletcher. Jose Ortiz, who brother Irad won last year’s Virginia Derby and four other stakes on the Derby undercard, will ride.