Colonial Downs race dates for 2023 were approved at the Virginia Racing Commission’s December 14 meeting, and the 27-day, 9-week meet features a move to partial weekend racing after several years of operating on a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday afternoon schedule.
The summer campaign will run from July 13 – September 9 with racing every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 1:30 PM. The 20th running of the $300,000 Grade 3 Virginia Derby is scheduled for closing day, Saturday September 9. A request has also been made to the American Graded Stakes Committee, as of press time, to consider running a pair of Grade 1 stakes, the Arlington Million and Beverly D, along with the Grade 2 Secretariat Stakes, at Colonial on Saturday August 12. The 2023 live race meet will be the first at Colonial Downs under the operation of new owners, Churchill Downs Incorporated (“CDI”).
“There were many considerations taken into account to arrive with this schedule,” said Jack Sours, VP of Gaming for CDI. “The long-term goal of Churchill Downs is to offer racing on weekends. That is our goal to be clear. We feel racing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday is a good first step toward that. This will allow more fans to enjoy racing in New Kent and will allow us to run the Virginia Derby on a Saturday.”
The 2021 and 2022 Virginia Derbies were both held on a Tuesday. The ’22 edition attracted an all-time record handle of $6.5 million. The overall ’22 meet itself offered $612,000 in average daily purses, had 8.35 starters per race and saw 1,382 horses from 321 trainers compete in the 9-week session. Approximately 40,000 fans attended the races on track.
“Another consideration in this process was finding a consistency in the post times. As we enter into this more competitive schedule, we need fans to be able to find our signal easily. Saratoga normally starts at 1:05 PM or a little bit after, so we can start after their first race and continue in that manner through the afternoon. Another key consideration was the ship-ins. We have a lot of horses that ship from Maryland and other areas so by having consistent matinee post times, it will be easier for them to plan and then get back home at a reasonable hour.”
From a fan standpoint, the new management team will face some hurdles.
“Moving to new days and times will require a lot of human resources,” added Sours. “We have to staff the place to accommodate large Saturday crowds and we know that’s not going to be an easy challenge. We’re all aware of staffing issues these days but we’re committed to overcome that challenge. There’s also the logistic piece as to how this will all flow,” he continued. “We want to get our feet on the ground with this new schedule, then can always come back with further adjustments. The final consideration is the opportunity to host corporate outings on Thursdays and Fridays. We have found success with that piece at our other properties. It will give us a chance to expose racing to a new audience and drive attendance.”
Sours said HHR handle is on pace for $3.9 billion this year, a 25% increase over the prior year. He expects that Colonial will add more Historical Horse Racing (HHR) terminals in 2023 which could result in additional race dates come 2024. There are currently 2,606 machines in operation between six Rosie’s Gaming Emporium sites. He projects that two more could come on board as early as September next year. The Rosie’s in Emporia will have 150 and the first phase of “The Rose” gaming resort in Dumfries is expected to open with 1,150 terminals.
“More HHR means more race dates,” said Sours. This will allow us to add more dates and possibly race over the entire weekend instead of just Saturdays. We may even explore evening racing in the future but we need to understand the entire operation first before we can even think about that. That’s something we’ll have to work towards.”
Gary Palmisano, CDI’s Executive Director of Racing, spoke at the meeting and addressed the strong safety record of Colonial’s turf and dirt surfaces. “It’s a very well kept track and we want to continue to maintain what already is in place,” he said. “The track crew that has been on board — that includes Harrison Young, Ken Brown and James Jackson — will not change.”
Palmisano noted the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s Triple Crown run will be an important element of Colonial’s promotional focus in 2023 especially if the Secretariat Stakes is held in New Kent along with the other two Grade 1 stakes.
“It will take some doing, but if we are able to get those three historically important stakes here on August 12th, our vision is to make that one of the biggest days in Virginia horse racing history with thousands of people on hand. There isn’t a Grade I stakes in this area after Preakness Day.”
Another key Saturday event will be the annual Virginia-Bred Stakes Day along with others in the planning stage. “We’re talking to a lot of people about promotions that can bring people in. Our goal is to make every Saturday a really big event day.”
Work has begun in earnest to make the 2023 meet under CDI’s leadership a success. “Folks think we’re crazy for taking on this schedule,” said Poliseno. “We could have hit the easy button and continued to run on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday like everyone told us to do. We just want to have one year to navigate this new schedule and see how it goes.”
Updates in the coming days will be available at virginiahorseracing.com and vabred.org. `