The following article appeared in the Racing Biz and was written by Nick Hahn.
Colonial Downs, often thought as being off racing’s beaten path, has become an oasis in recent years for horsemen, an attractive opportunity with ample purse money that is fortunately timed in the racing calendar to help fill vacancies that surface, both temporary and permanent.
In 2021 with both courses at Churchill Downs under reconstruction, Kentucky horsemen flowed into New Kent, with many returning this summer. With the shutdown of Arlington Park, this year it’s the Illinois horsemen filling Colonial’s stables.
Trainer Chris Block was traveling through Ohio the day prior to opening day on his way to see Colonial Downs for the first time. Block, who has trained horses since 1989 and is closing in on 1,400 career wins, is the current President of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association (ITHA). With his longtime summer home of Arlington Park closed, he has brought over two dozen horses to Colonial.
“It left a hole in the middle of the season this year to where we needed to find somewhere to go,” said Block, whose horses usually run on turf, making Colonial a logical option for Block and his owners. “I think it’s a good opportunity for my horses to get refreshed. It’s very relaxed and quiet on the backstretch, and I think that’s good for horses.”
Block talked to his owners about where to go while Chicagoland racing went dark between Hawthorne’s meets..
“It wasn’t that tough of a decision,” added Block, who despite the distance from Chicago, preferred Colonial to other closer venues. “It seemed to be the logical spot for the horses that we have.”
While the new venue was his choice, the cause of it wasn’t.
“Losing Arlington, the emotions run really deep; sadness, frustration, very emotional on losing Arlington. It’s really disrupted my stable,” said Block. “Normally we are there right now, in the middle of the meet, and it’s where a lot of my owners structured their business of owning and breeding racehorses.”
While stabled in Virginia, Block as ITHA President will be finalizing the 2023 Illinois racing calendar. Hawthorne Park appears to be the only option for both thoroughbred and harness racing dates, increasing the likelihood that a number of Illinois horsemen may return next year.
Past ITHA President Mike Campbell is familiar with Colonial’s ownership, existing and future. Earlier this year Colonial Downs was purchased by Churchill Downs, also Arlington Park’s owner, in a sale that is expected to close by the end of the year. Campbell previously trained horses for Larry Lukas and George Mellon (Mellonpatch, Inc.), part of the existing ownership group of Colonial Downs that restored racing in Virginia in 2019.
In Colonial’s return to racing, Campbell was invited to participate “to kick off the place because I’m sure they were worried about horse population in the inaugural year,” adding that “we had a good experience”.
While Campbell stayed home at Arlington last year, he acknowledges things are different now.
“When you’re a mercenary like all of us from Chicago are now, this is the next stop on the trail and the purse money is what it should be,” he said.
Daily purses at Colonial Downs are expected to average $625,000 per day. Now with a few seasons behind him, Campbell has found Colonial’s outer dirt course an underutilized – and perhaps underappreciated – asset.
“Hat’s off to Jill Byrne (Colonial’s Vice-President of Racing Operations) and her crew. I just find it remarkable what they have done,” praised Campbell. “The track is perfect: the best kept secret in racing is how good this dirt track is. How safe it is, the footing it has, how it’s taken care of, the mile-and-a-quarter and sweeping turns doesn’t hurt. They’ve got the perfect mixture on that track.”
Campbell, who described incoming owner Churchill Downs as negotiating “in a very hard manner,” pointed out that features of the Virginia law, which directly connects expanding gaming to expanding race days, are a positive for the racing industry. Still, he says, “They will have to make this place successful.”
Now gaining some familiarity to central Virginia, Campbell is looking forward to the upcoming meet, both live days and dark days.
“I’m going to work hard and I’m going to play hard too,” he said. “The area has a lot to offer.”
That includes states the nearby Rockahock campground, where Campbell intends to bring his boat so he can explore the Chickahominy River
A few days after arriving in central Virginia trainer Larry Rivelli, who won the training title at Arlington Park multiple times including its last season, is optimistic about the upcoming meet.
“Something new for me,” observed Rivelli who has only had one previous starter in New Kent that was prior to Colonial’s six-year closure that began in 2013. “I looked at a bunch of different options. I thought we’d try something new. It’s a little further away from me, but excited about the track. It’s in fantastic shape.”
Rivelli just went through the logistics of moving 60 to 70 horses from 13 hours aways to a venue he had never seen in person. The purse structure helps provide motivation to do so, and Rivelli expects to have horses for a wide variety of class levels.
“The major purse boost is going to be good for the track,” commented Rivelli on Off to the Races Radio. “I’m a pretty realistic guy and I’ve done well by placing my horses in spots where they need to run. So sometimes you run for the money that you need to run for to win, whether it’s big or small.”
On the weekend before the opening of Colonial’s meet, old Arlington Park saddlecloths were prominent on horses going out for the morning gallops, bringing a little bit of their former home track with them to a new venue. Colonial also acquired the former Arlington Park railing that was used on its turf course, so perhaps the setting won’t be completely unfamiliar to Block, Campbell and Rivelli.
“All of us from Chicago miss Arlington but were also looking forward our new spot for the time we are going to be at Colonial,” closed Block. “Myself, Mike Campbell and Larry Rivelli, hopefully will have some success for our clients and ourselves.”
Opening week at Colonial Downs, Rivelli has five entered all on the turf while Campbell and Block are slated to start three each including Mo Clare’s for Block in the $125,000 Brookmeade stakes opening day. Jockey Jareth Loveberry, a perennial leading jockey at Arlington, will be riding for Rivelli and Block throughout the meet.