Originally Posted on Dailypress.com on 4/3/23, Written by Kim O’Brien Root
NEW KENT — Colonial Downs set fire to its Secretariat Turf Course last week to prepare the racetrack for its summer horse racing season.
The annual controlled burn prepares — and actually helps — the racing surface for the nine-week season, which is scheduled to begin July 13 and go through Sept. 9.
“The burn takes dead cover off the turf in a rapid manner and allows it to grow back more plush, green and safe within weeks, if not days,” said Colonial Downs spokesman Mark Hubbard. “The controlled burn strategy is used as opposed to trimming, because the fire drives nutrients back into the soil.”
The controlled burn method is preferred to cutting the grass, Hubbard said. The process is quicker and more efficient.
Track employees, working with New Kent Fire-Rescue and the Virginia Department of Forestry, started the burn the afternoon of March 28. Virginia law prohibits open burning before 4 p.m. this time of year, so the track was set ablaze just afterward.
Colonial Downs workers used a drip torch, a device that holds kerosene. Once the torch is lit, it drips fire, allowing the holder to basically draw a fire along a line.
The fire was set into the wind, which allows it to burn back on itself, said New Kent Fire Chief Rick Opett. A crew of about 10 firefighters stayed on scene during the burn, positioned inside and outside of the track’s perimeter to keep flames from spreading. A crew of “fire swatters” was also on hand to make sure the fire stayed within the planned boundaries.
But nothing went amiss.
Opett said it was “probably one of our smoothest burns we’ve had in a while. … the weather conditions were perfect, the winds weren’t too crazy.”
It took about two hours for the flames to work their way across the old, dead layer of thatch, leaving a charred surface behind. Colonial Downs adds a fresh layer of dirt after a burn, leaving plenty of time for the grass to grow back for the season.
“In another week, with that good sun, we should have a layer of green,” Opett said.
At 180 feet wide, the Secretariat Turf Course is the widest grass racing course in North America, while its 1¼-mile dirt track is the country’s second longest. The turf course is named for the famed thoroughbred who swept the Triple Crown Series in 1973. Secretariat, considered one of the greatest racehorses of all time, was born in 1970 in Doswell and trained in Virginia.
Colonial Downs plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s historic season this summer.
The year’s racing season will feature three Thoroughbred stakes races that are moving to the New Kent course for the first time — the Grade 1 Arlington Million, the Beverly D. Stakes and the Grade 2 Secretariat Stakes. File photo
The year’s racing season will feature three Thoroughbred stakes races that are moving to the New Kent course for the first time — the Grade 1 Arlington Million, the Beverly D. Stakes and the Grade 2 Secretariat Stakes.
In addition, the racetrack will be modifying its live race days to Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays instead of the traditional Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday schedule. The change is intended to make horse racing more accessible to everyone, the racetrack has said.
The 2023 race season will be the first under the new owners, Churchill Downs Incorporated, the owners of the Kentucky Derby venue, after the sale was finalized last year.