"Attendance 434; Handle $45,210."
The bottom line from Tuesday's results at Colonial Downs is not what Virginians expected after they succeeded in their long campaign to legalize horse racing. People who once envisioned a track that would be the "Saratoga of the South" now look at Colonial's numbers and wonder whether it can survive.
In its two years of existence, Colonial has suffered from a variety of management, financial and political problems. It may overcome them, but it will never overcome its main problems: location, location, location.
A visitor who drives out Interstate 64 to Colonial will immediately wonder what possessed anybody to build a racetrack here--in the middle of nowhere. Civilization is more than 25 miles away, toward Richmond or Williamsburg. There are no restaurants, no motels, and no horseplayers. "In this location," said marketing director Darrell Wood, "we're dealing with a population that had never been to a track or made a wager. When people come here they bet $2 to show and they're happy to collect 20 cents." Moreover, many Virginians who are established racing fans have an off-track betting parlor near them, and they don't need to drive to the boondocks to wager.
Live racing might have succeeded at a track operating in Northern Virginia, or in the Virginia Beach area during the summer. But when Joe De Francis, president of Laurel and Pimlico, was foiled in his bid to build a track in Northern Virginia, he threw his support behind the New Kent site. Virginia's racing commissioners believed (correctly) that any new track would need an alliance with Maryland so that it would have a supply of horses. And thus was Colonial Downs constructed in this unlikely place.
Its one big drawback negates much about Colonial Downs that was well-conceived. The physical plant is a pleasant one; I'd rather spend a day here than at Laurel or Pimlico. Its designers didn't make the mistake of constructing a big grandstand overlooking the track--an irrelevance in an era when most people watch races and simulcasts on television. Instead, the plant's key components are its third-level clubhouse/dining room and fourth-level turf club, both comfortable and attractive facilities. On the day that I was one of the 434 diehards in attendance, I expected to find a dispirited, moribund atmosphere, but employees as well as customers were all upbeat--a pleasant contrast from the customary ambience at Laurel.
Colonial's most distinguishing feature is its big, beautiful turf course, which allows grass racing to be the centerpiece of the track's product. The course is so well-built that Colonial ran an entire nine-race card on the grass, even though it had recently been inundated by rain. Horsemen love it. "The track's great, the turf course is great and it's such a nice, relaxed atmosphere that horses do well here," said Maryland-based trainer Gerald Delp, who brought his stable here for the five-week season. But Colonial's isolation has disadvantages. Delp doesn't have the option of shipping horses to nearby tracks, as he can do from Laurel, and he can't find stable employees who live in the area. "It's just a shame," Delp said, "that this is in the middle of nowhere."
There was a time when racetracks' business was limited by their geography. But the advent of simulcasting, off-track and in-home betting gives remote tracks a chance to compete in the national marketplace--if they have a good enough product.
"Our goal," said John Mooney, Colonial's chief operating officer, "is to put on full fields that are competitive and worthwhile to bet on." And the turf course has allowed Colonial to achieve that goal, because grass races almost always draw large fields, and fans like to bet them. So even though Colonial's purses aren't especially high and the quality of the horses isn't great, simulcast bettors evidently like the product. Colonial's 3 p.m. post time might seem odd (and Mooney believes it has hurt weekday attendance), but it allows the track to stay on the television screen after other major Eastern tracks, notably Belmont Park, have run their last race. Colonial operates with minimal competition in late afternoon and, as a result, simulcast wagering on its races has averaged about $1 million a day.
Colonial is authorized to operate off-track betting facilities around the state, and its four parlors--in Richmond, Hampton, Alberta and Chesapeake--are all successful, generating $180 million in annual handle. What's missing from the mix is an outlet in Northern Virginia. Therefore, Colonial is applying to operate a steeplechase track in Dumfries, Va., that would race 20 days a year and operate as a simulcast parlor year-round. (Prince William County already has passed a referendum permitting a racetrack, so Colonial won't encounter as many political obstacles in Dumfries as it would elsewhere.) "In order for us to succeed financially," Mooney said, "we have to have more OTB parlors, and Northern Virginia is the place to have one."
Colonial Downs is never going to be the Saratoga of the South, and its grandstand will rarely be packed with cheering fans. But if the track fully exploits the potential of simulcasting and off-track betting, it will at least be able to survive.
CAPTION: Colonial Downs is a pleasant, well-conceived track, but its remote location is certain to ensure it never will be "Saratoga of the South," as envisioned.