When your racetrack sits in something of a no-man's land amid cleared woods between Washington and Williamsburg, it takes a bit of creativity to get noticed. Jeff Jacobs, chairman of Colonial Downs in New Kent County, not only has come up with an idea to put his out-of-the-way track on the map, but moved aggressively, as well, bulling his way on to the national racing scene.
The inaugural $500,000 Colonial Turf Cup for 3-year-olds tomorrow kicks off the four-race Grand Slam of Grass, an ambitious new turf series for 3-year-olds that offers $3.65 million in guaranteed prize money and a $3 million bonus to the connections of any horse who can sweep every race. The Turf Cup will be followed by the Grade III $750,000 Virginia Derby on July 16 at Colonial Downs before the series shifts to Arlington Park outside of Chicago on Aug. 13 for the Grade I Secretariat Stakes and culminates with the Breeders' Cup Turf this fall at Belmont Park.
Stakes winner English Channel, conditioned by top trainer Todd Pletcher, heads a field of 11 entries for the Colonial Turf Cup, although several runners are cross-entered to compete in the Grade III $500,000 Kent Breeders' Cup run at the same time at Delaware Park.
The Grand Slam of Grass has a long way to go to develop the deep history and prestige of racing's famous Triple Crown, but Jacobs is trying.
"We believe we are creating a new American sports tradition," said Jacobs, chairman and CEO of Jacobs Investments, a $1.5 billion private company in Palm Beach, Fla., whose primary holding is the track. "We recognize traditions take a while to take hold, but we think in the next three to five years all four of these races will be on television. We're going to fill a niche that isn't being filled in North America."
Pletcher said he admires the idea of the series, but won't commit to running English Channel in all four races.
"It's great for the 3-year-olds to run for that kind of money, but I don't get tied up in a series of races that has a bonus because it's so hard to [win]," Pletcher said. "I don't schedule my horses around a series for races for bonus money. We've been focused on the Virginia Derby and Turf Cup for a while. It made sense if we're going to run in the Virginia Derby to get a race on the course."
Now in its ninth year, Colonial Downs, without the benefit of slot machines, is signaling its intent to try to join the elite racing centers in the country. The track is offering $2.48 million in stakes races this year during a 40-day race meet, the longest in its brief history. Jacobs said total purse money for the meet is around $10 million and will rise to $14 million next year. Also, he plans to raise the purses for the Colonial Turf Cup and signature Virginia Derby to $1 million each, putting them on a par with the Preakness Stakes, the top stakes race in Maryland.
"The reason Colonial Downs now has significant purse money . . . is it's a statewide monopoly with one track, one short meet and a system of [eight] off-track betting facilities that are cash-flow generators," Jacobs said. "Live racing at many tracks loses money and the OTBs generate the cash flow.
"Our handle is going up every year; attendance is going up every year. We're at a nice trend right now."