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Stage Set for Colonial Downs’ Grandest Meet Ever

Colonial Downs is on the precipice of its grandest meet ever. The New Kent, Va., track, in addition to offering a record average of $700,000 in daily purses, will play host to two grade 1 races this year for the first time in its 26-year history.

The expanded purses were bolstered by new track owner, Churchill Downs Inc. Upon the acquisition of Colonial Downs last November for a reported $2.75 million, Churchill Downs built historical racing machine entertainment venues throughout Virginia, leading to an influx of money for the upcoming race meet.

Last year, Colonial Downs offered a daily average purse distribution of $586,483. The 2022 average maiden special weight purse was $45,750 in comparison to the $60,000 purse being offered for this year’s meet.

“We are extremely excited about the upcoming race season at Colonial Downs. We are all thankful to have great partners in Virginia Equine Alliance and the Virginia HBPA to showcase the tremendous racing product Virginia has to offer,” said Gary Palmisano, the executive director of racing for Churchill Downs Inc.

Spanning 27 days from July 13 through Sept. 9, races will be scheduled every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The new nine-week meet marks a return to weekend racing at Colonial Downs, which the track hasn’t held since 2019 after operating for years on a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday race schedule.

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“(Weekend racing) now gives fans hopefully an opportunity to come out to the track and see what a beautiful track it is—it has two of the best track surfaces in the country. Colonial is very well known for its Secretariat turf course but the dirt track at Colonial is also phenomenal, it’s the largest in the country second only behind Belmont Park,” said Jill Byrne, vice president of strategic planning for the Virginia Equine Alliance and the former vice president of racing relations for Colonial Downs. Frank Hopf took over as Colonial Downs’ senior director of racing operations following the 2022 race meet.

“We’re hoping the schedule will enable a lot of new fans to come out and enjoy it,” Byrne said. “Over the last four years, the quality of racing has improved so much and fans recognize the names of the horsemen—the trainers and jockeys of horses that are racing at Colonial and it puts it right up there with the top rung of the status in summer racing.”

The record $5.2 million in stakes races are topped by the $1 million Arlington Million (G1T), $500,000 Beverly D. Stakes (G1T), $500,000 Secretariat Stakes (G2T), and $500,000 Virginia Derby (G3T). Another stakes receiving a significant purse increase is the listed Virginia Oaks, the sister race of the Virginia Derby, which had its purse bumped up to $250,000 for 2023 from $200,000 in 2022.

“Colonial Downs is well known for its turf course and we’re looking forward to hosting some of the world’s best turf horses over Arlington Million weekend,” Palmisano said.

Previously run at the late Arlington International Racecourse, the prestigious Arlington Million and Beverly D. were staged at Churchill Downs last year before relocating to Colonial Downs for 2023. Held for horses aged 3-years-old and up, the 1 1/4-mile Arlington Million, contested since 1981, has been captured by some of racing’s all-time grass greats in John Henry, Manila, and Bricks and Mortar . The Beverly D., a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series: Win and You’re In race for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1T) at Santa Anita Park, is run over the 1 3/16-mile distance for fillies and mares 3-years-old and up. Eclipse Award-winning champion turf female Sistercharlie  notched back-to-back runnings of the Beverly D. in 2018 and 2019.

“The addition of bringing the Arlington Million, Beverly D, and Secretariat to Colonial Downs on the Colonial Festival of Racing weekend Aug. 12 is really important for the recognition of not only Colonial Downs but of the Virginia horse industry, which has such a rich history,” Byrne said. “To see this strong resurgence in the state of Virginia is encouraging and when you get races of such value it just really shows the recognition of the stature that Virginia racing and the Virginia breeding and certified program has attained in the last four to five years.”

Colonial Downs, home to the largest turf course in the country, and the second largest in North America after Woodbine, should be the ideal host for the lucrative turf contests. The outer Secretariat turf course measures 1 1/8 miles with a homestretch extending 1,290.5 feet from the final turn to the wire.  

Scenics - Colonial Downs - 090622
Photo: Coady Photography

Fans and racing at Colonial Downs

Among the trainers shipping runners into Colonial for Thursday’s opening day card include 2022 meet-leading trainer Michael Stidham and Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey. Colonial regulars that are represented on the opening day card include trainers Graham Motion, Mike Trombetta, and Kelsey Danner in addition to Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, who brought a string of 25 horses to compete at Colonial for the second in a year row, as well as newcomer Mark Casse, a Hall of Fame conditioner in both the United States and Canada.

“I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback from the horsemen stabled over there so far this year,” Byrne said. “The horsemen really like the way they’re treated (at Colonial); it’s kind of a boutique meet so it’s a smaller group and they get a lot of real personal attention.

“We’ve seen some new stables come in—you have Mark Casse with a stable of 30, Steve Asmussen back this year with 25. When you see big stables like that come in it brings a great deal of pride to the state of Virginia. It’s just quality, quality racing.”

Colonial Downs’ 2022 meet-leading jockey Jevian Toledo leads the returning riders to this year’s meet. Other notable jockeys include Colonial’s all-time leading jockey Horacio Karamanos, Antonio Gallardo, Adam Beschizza, and Joe Rocco, Jr.

The post time for the first race on a nine-race card is 1:35 pm ET. Churchill Downs track announcer Travis Stone will be calling the races the first week at Colonial Downs in lieu of regular track announcer Jason Beem, who is dealing with a personal health matter. Beem wrote on Twitter Monday that he will be in Florida awaiting test results and a follow-up on a procedure.

Byrne noted that it couldn’t be more fitting that Colonial Downs is about to undergo its biggest meet yet on the 50th anniversary of the most famous Virginia-bred horse of all time—Secretariat.

“That doesn’t hurt either,” Byrne said of the 1973 Triple Crown winner. “Secretariat is our pride and joy here in the state of Virginia.”

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