Thoroughbred Horse Racing Season Opens at Colonial Downs

The following appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch on Thursday July 30 and was written by Wayne Epps.

It’s 6:35 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, and the first race of Colonial Downs’ 2020 schedule is off and running.

The voice of the track’s announcer bellows through speakers hanging around the grandstand area.

This year, though, the sound echoes through a mostly empty expanse.

After a successful rejuvenation last year, the New Kent horse racing track is back with a season that’ll run through early September. But because of the coronavirus, the races will happen without fans populating the outdoor seating.

Jockey Rebecca Grace LaBarre gets ready for the first race at Colonial Downs Tuesday July 28. Photo by Alexa Welch Edlund.

Still, the track is able to offer another sizable purse and is experiencing high turnout from members of the horse racing community planning to run in this year’s meet.

So while it may feel different, there seems to be contentment that races can happen at all.

“Obviously, we’d love to have people in the stands and all the excitement of what racing’s all about,” said Mike Stidham, a trainer who will have more than a dozen horses at Colonial Downs for this year’s races. “But because of the COVID situation, it’s the right thing to be cautious and be careful. We’re just happy to be here and be able to race.”

Before last year, racing at Colonial Downs endured a five-year hiatus. The last events occurred in 2013, before previous owner Jacobs Entertainment surrendered its license in 2014.

But the track was purchased by what’s now the Colonial Downs Group in 2018. It was revived with a 15-day race schedule last year. The total purse of $7.4 million represented a 55% increase over the previous year of racing, in 2013, with daily purses at $492,000. There was $17.5 million wagered, which was 18% more than 2013.

The racing events drew 36,000 spectators.

Jill Byrne, Colonial Downs’ vice president of racing operations, said they couldn’t have been happier with the 2019 results.

“Horse racing has such a big history in Virginia,” Byrne said. “So to have racing return after the hiatus, it’s so important for the breeding industry, for the agricultural business. But also for Colonial Downs.”

This year, the track added three race dates, up to 18. The plan was to have the average daily purses in the $500,000 range again.

Horses compete over the turf during Tuesday’s opener. No fans are allowed in outdoor areas during the ’20 season. Photo by Coady Photography.

But COVID-19’s effect on purse revenue sources has altered that. That includes the Colonial Downs-operated Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums, which closed March 15. The centers didn’t reopen until July 1.

Daily purses will now average $340,000.

“We’re all just glad that we’re back running,” Byrne said, speaking of racetracks all over. “Because people make a living — the horse industry worldwide is just such a big industry and it’s very tough on people to lose their livelihood.”

Some in the industry went a couple of months without racing earlier this year. Ferris Allen — a trainer originally from Varina and now based in Maryland, who has come to Colonial Downs since it opened in 1997 — had about a 75-day gap between events.

But the horses’ daily care and training continue.

“So it was very tedious … because we never knew when they were going to start back up,” Allen said.

Allen has had horses competing at other tracks since events restarted, but at Colonial Downs, he is contributing to a total number of horses in attendance that Byrne said is almost double that of last year’s meet — about 600.

To try to keep those involved safe, masks and temperature checks are required of everyone entering the stable area. The track is also conducting health screenings and frequently disinfecting public areas.

A variety of weather ushered in the 2020 season on Monday and Tuesday. Photo provided by the VEA.

The jockeys may be among those affected the most by the coronavirus protocols. They had to provide a negative COVID-19 test prior to the start of the meet. Also if they were to ride at another track during this meet at Colonial Downs, they would then have to self-quarantine for 14 days and provide another negative test — essentially scratching that possibility because of the number of Colonial Downs races they would miss.

Still, jockey Katie Davis described the group of riders as upbeat.

“They’re just really happy to ride,” she said. “And we got a good jockey’s room, good people riding. So we’re all really excited.”

Tuesday evening, with the events underway, small numbers of trainers and grooms made up the gist of the spectators for each race. Nearby, inside the track’s main building, patrons visited the on-site Rosie’s location.

Despite the lack of outdoor spectators, the track is allowing up to 200 people to use an indoor, upstairs space to watch, with the purchase of a ticket and at socially distanced tables of two.

Outside, the only audible cheering and clapping Tuesday came from those limited numbers of onlookers directly involved in the proceedings.

It’s different. But the show is going on.

“It’s very strange to be here with no fans,” said Frank Petramalo, executive director of the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “But in terms of the safety of the horses and the trainers and grooms, that’s our principal concern.”

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