Tall order: Ralph Sampson coming to Colonial Downs

Ralph Sampson
Virginia native and basketball Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson. Photo courtesy of Sampson Basketball Academy.

The race in the recruitment of 1970s high school basketball phenom Ralph Sampson went to the University of Virginia.

But it was closer than many realize, and what nearly put the University of Kentucky over the top was the impression thoroughbreds made on Sampson during his official recruiting visit to the Bluegrass State. Immediately after his campus tour, Sampson had convinced himself he was going to be a Wildcat.

Fortunately for University of Virginia fans, his mother Sarah Sampson stepped in and asked that he not make a rash decision before completing his recruitment process fully.

Sampson stayed home, lived up to the hype, and next month will be feted at Colonial Downs.

Sampson will be a VIP at Colonial Downs on July 13, the opening Saturday of the nine-week meet that opens on Thursday, July 11.

Sampson’s day at Colonial Downs will include a trophy presentation and riders up call for one of Colonial’s stakes races that day. On tap are the $125,000 Boston Stakes for three-year-olds on the turf, the $125,000 Beverly D Preview, and the $125,000 Arlington Million Preview. He will also autograph Colonial Downs giveaway calendars and memorabilia.

On the July 15 edition of Off to the Races Radio, Sampson shared his recruiting experience in Lexington, Kentucky that for, at least a few moments, had him on I-64 heading west towards Lexington, rather than east, to Charlottesville.

Certainly the newly-built, 20,000-plus seats of Rupp Arena left an impression. So, too, did the surrounding countryside that Sampson remembers as “my first experience with racehorses, a totally different breed, right?  It’s massive and the horses are beautiful.”

How close was the decision? The Washington Post quoted Sampson, on May 31, 1979, as saying, “If I have any doubt and change my mind, it will be Kentucky.” The future overall #1 NBA pick is said to have changed his mind at least 50 times in the days leading up to his announcement.

“I take my official visit to the University of Kentucky and Leonard Hamilton [current Florida State head basketball coach] was an assistant,” remembered Sampson. “So they pick me up at my house in Harrisonburg and an FBI agent takes me to Dulles Airport and then to Lexington. We have forty-eight hours to get this in. It was so, so beautiful and it reminded me of Virginia and the farms here.”

With his playing days behind him, Sampson has been spending more time at his nearly 200-acre farm in McGaheysville, Virginia, that has been in his family for generations. As a teenager Sampson worked and played on that farm. That would have come in handy had he gone to Kentucky, where, it was explained to him during his recruitment, his summer job would have been at a thoroughbred farm near Keeneland.

“I would turn the water on, go work out and then come back and turn the water off,” Sampson recallED being told of his duties.

It wasn’t NIL, but still not a harsh way to make money for an incoming freshman. 

“That was my first experience seeing a racehorse,” Sampson said. “It’s still in my memory, as you can tell. The horses were so beautiful.”


The visit, the job, potentially playing in Rupp Arena, and his own room in the now-demolished Wildcat Lodge, a residence hall for basketball players, “were a lot of perks for back then,” Sampson noted.

In the end it was Virginia and family that kept Sampson in his home state. They are still rubbing dirt on the smarts of that decision west of the Appalachians, where Sampson would have played with Sam Bowie and Mel Turpin.

His development and experience at the University of Virginia as player and a student were so meaningful that he stayed all four years, passing on NBA courtships after each collegiate season, as well as after his senior year as a Harrisonburg High School Blue Streak.

Sampson has been to other racetracks since, largely in New York, but is looking forward to seeing thoroughbreds race in his home state. He hosts the Sampson Basketball Academy camps that includes a nearby session at the newly built Henrico County Event Center in Richmond on July 22 through July 25. 

But before that, Sampson will head a little further east to New Kent and Colonial Downs.

“To everyone out there, come on out to the races,” encouraged Sampson. “It’s going to be fun. I’m excited to come to Colonial Downs and can’t wait to get there on the thirteenth.”