Congratulations to two longtime Virginia horse racing industry employees —- who both started working at the Colonial Downs Off Track Betting Center in Alberta in December, 1997 —- and are still working at Colonial Downs, some 25 years later!
Paulette Coleman and Karen Henson started work the same day that December and neither could have imagined they would still be working together a quarter century later. At the time, pari-mutuel horse racing was still very new to Virginia. Off Track Betting sites first opened in 1996 in Chesapeake and Richmond then the Colonial Downs track itself opened in September, 1997. OTBs on Hampton and Alberta followed shortly after the inaugural meet in New Kent.
Coleman worked four years in Alberta before relocating to manage Colonial’s old Richmond OTB location on Hull Street. She since has managed the former Richmond West Broad Street OTB and the Breakers Sports Grille OTB and even now, serves as Horsemen’s Bookkeeper for the summer thoroughbred meet in addition to her OTB duties. Henson spent 17 years at Alberta and after that location closed, managed the Windmill OTB in Collinsville before transferring to Breakers where she is currently based. She also works at the New Kent track during the summer races.
“I love the customers, the excitement of horse racing, and the big days especially,” said Coleman. “I absolutely love it. It’s in my blood. I’ve enjoyed 25-plus years of making friends. Just the other day, my supervisor said that ‘you know everybody no matter where you go’. Horseplayers travel around so you see many of the same ones at the various sites.”
Henson echoed those same sentiments. “It’s the customers,” she said. “I enjoy the aspect of listening to the customers and forming relationships. We’re just like an extended family. They let us know how they are doing. We genuinely want to know that so we can provide a better experience for them. It’s also a privilege to work the live race meet and hear the horses run, which adds another layer of enjoyment for me. This is so much better than any other job I’ve ever had.”
Because pari-mutuel wagering was still new to Virginians in the late ’90’s, times were different and both ladies have fond memories of those early days in Alberta.
“It was the best of times there,” recalled Coleman. “The place was jumping on the weekends. The betting line was full of tellers, the place was full of customers. It was just a wonderful atmosphere. Racing was new to us so we were surprised at the number of people that already knew how to bet. And then you had locals who wanted to see what it was all about and they wanted to learn how to bet.”
After the initial version of Colonial Downs closed in 2014, Coleman and Henson went on to work elsewhere for a short period of time at Lowe’s and at a propane company respectively. But as soon as the Virginia Equine Alliance opened up a slate of OTBs in 2016, both jumped back into racing without hesitation — in Henrico and Collinsville.
“I missed it,” said Henson. “Horse racing is exciting and fun, especially when you have money in the game and you’re cheering your horse on. We have a lot of longtime players at Breakers but the fun aspect is showing new customers how to play, then watching them build on the knowledge you gave them and what they get from other customers too. It’s neat to see that transition take place.”
“Many people think we don’t want them to win,” added Coleman. “We want them to win. New customers especially think it’s like a casino where they play against the house. We want them to win and bring two or three people back the next time, and have those people bring another two or three back on their next visit to have fun. When you see excitement in their faces from winning, we get excited too. We’re rooting for them. We’ll yell right with them — “come on five, come on five!”
Kentucky Derby prep race season is in full swing now and most every weekend thru mid-April features key stakes races for three-year-old horses, all of whom are battling to secure a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate on Saturday May 6. Fans can wager the action at either of the two VA-Horseplay OTBs — in Henrico at Breakers Sports Grille (9127 West Broad St) and in Chesapeake at Buckets Bar and Grill (228 North Battlefield Blvd). The six Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums also feature a simulcast area to watch and wager races from up to 20 different tracks daily. Online betting is also available via Twinspires.com, TVG.com, Xpressbet.com and NYRAbets.com.