90 Miles in 4 Hours; or, a Visit to Colonial Downs

I lived in the mid-Atlantic for seven years, and I logged more hours than I care to remember on I-95, making my way home to friends and family in New York and Saratoga.  When I left the area in 1995, I vowed I’d never again live anywhere that required regular travel on 95.

I was reminded of those words last Saturday morning, as I sat, motionless, on the dreaded road south of D.C.  Were all of these people really going to the Colonial Turf Cup?  Was the nearly 100-degree weather driving them all south and east to the beach?  Was there a big sale somewhere?

Having left home shortly after 6 am, I was confident that I’d make the 12:55 post time at Colonial Downs.  Instead, after bobbing and weaving unsuccessfully through several non-95 detours, I arrived just in time for the sixth race.  Fortunately, that was only the halfway point of the card.

When I lived in southeast Virginia, only thirty minutes from where Colonial Downs is located, pari-mutuel betting in the Commonwealth was illegal.  But sometime in the early to mid 1990’s, the good souls of Virginia decided that a new racetrack in a fairly desolate area just east of Richmond would be a great idea, and in 1997, Colonial Downs opened.

Having spent two years in Williamsburg, I know that Virginians don’t mess around when it comes to Colonial architecture; nonetheless, accustomed to a certain genre of racetrack design, I was surprised to be greeted by buildings infused with 18th century style when I arrived on Saturday morning afternoon.

The racetrack is set, curiously, in the middle of a number of housing developments, and the grandstand fits right in; it could be one of the thousands of Georgian and Federal-style homes that cover the landscape in southeast Virginia.

Saturday was Colonial Turf Cup Day, the second biggest day on the racing calendar, behind Virginia Derby day.  These two races make up the Grand Slam of Grass, along with the Secretariat Stakes at Arlington and the Breeders’ Cup Turf.  The Grade II Colonial Turf Cup, worth $500,000 had attracted two Kentucky Derby starters, Dean’s Kitten and Paddy O’Prado, both of whom raced at Saratoga on the grass last summer, and both of whom had seemed destined for a career on the turf until Derby Dreams re-routed them to the dirt.

Saturday was also the Rhythm, Bets, and Brews festival; in a tent at the top of the stretch, a band performed throughout the day, while representatives of various breweries set up shop to offer tastes of their wares.  $10 got you a small glass and tickets for five fill-ups; my favorites were an ale from Williamsburg Alewerks (note:  do those labels remind you of any other Colonial-type brew?  How do they get away with it?) and the Magic Hat Wacko.

Known for its turf racing, Colonial has two grass courses and had carded 12 races on them last Saturday; I felt right at home as Linda Rice took the Buckland Stakes with Lady Rizzi, at five and a half furlongs on the outer turf course.  H. Graham Motion’s Shared Account won the Grade III All Along Stakes

Among the other familiar New York faces in Virginia for the day were Kent Desormeaux, Cornelio Velasquez, Edgar Prado, and Alan Garcia, and the trip south for the day was worth it for Desormeaux (I’ll bet HE didn’t sit in traffic for four hours), who won the feature aboard Paddy O’Prado.  The son of El Prado notched his second career victory, winning by three lengths.

The announced crowd was 3,428, smaller than I’d have guessed, but it was an enthusiastic group. I stayed on the apron with friends and didn’t venture to the upper levels of the grandstand, but the ground level offered good views of the track from the sloped apron; plenty of betting windows; and food and drink nearby.

I’d planned and aborted trips to Colonial for the last two summers, and while this foray was a little more arduous than I’d hoped, it was worth it.  Summer tracks often have a vacation feel to them; Colonial is no different, and the management seems dedicated to making sure that the patrons have a good time.

The track slogan is “Win Money, Have Fun” (the “u” in “Fun” is a horseshoe); though I was only 50% successful, it was enough to ensure that Colonial is on my list of tracks to which I’d like to return.  But next time….I’m leaving the day before, and I’m not driving down 95.

An aside:  this site is clearly still going through growing pains as I continue to play with the design.  Apologies for the current small print–stay tuned for further changes!

29 thoughts on “90 Miles in 4 Hours; or, a Visit to Colonial Downs

  1. Well, really it took you two years and nine hours to finally get to Colonial Downs 😉 It was a fun day, come back anytime!

  2. And it was worth the wait! Thanks so much to you and Rob for your help, pep talks, and directions. Can’t wait to come back.

    And I’m glad that the site looks “normal” to you again!

  3. Well, durn … had I known you’d be there, I’d have waved. Or something.

    I very much enjoy Colonial Downs, so it’s good, I guess, that it’s my nearest track. It’ll probably be two years before I have a homebred on that track, though; my yearling is a late foal and likely won’t be ready for a summer campaign at 2.

    Holla if you’re going back. Maybe I’ll be there and can say, “Yo, how YOU doin’?”

  4. Mr. Craven, I suggest you hurry your home-bred to race at this “boutique meet”.
    I’m not sure what the future holds for Colonial Downs.

    With an attendance figure of 3,428 the per capita comes out to $67.33.

    Or an average of $5.61 bet during the 12 races.
    Sorry, but that won’t even get us half way across the Verrazanos.

  5. Shoot, Glenn–sorry that we missed each other. Definitely next time. And of course the reciprocal invitation is extended if you make it up to one of the NY tracks.

    Thanks for the buzzkill, TKS.

  6. The Backstretch wrote:

    >>> Thanks for the buzzkill, TKS.


    Ah yes. Sorry folks, but I live in reality.

    $5.61 won’t even buy us lunch at Nathan’s, either.

    Carry on. Carry on. LOL 🙂

  7. But that’s a higher per capita than many days at Monmouth, Knight Sky, yet you sing their praises all over the internet.

    Some reality you live in.

  8. Entertaining post, Teresa, albeit that whole I-95 affair sounds horribly revolting!

    As I watch Colonial Downs on simulcast, there seems to be some sort of quaint appeal to the venue (which I personally attribute to fine turf racing .. horses galloping on all that pretty green grass and so forth); it’s nice to know that it’s actually like that! Maybe next year I’ll contribute to the attendance figure. TKS, you can contribute to attendance,too – I’ll buy you some kind of Minuteman ale 😉

  9. I sing Monmouth Park’s praises because they’ve taken the bull by the horns.
    It’s now or never. Make the thoroughbred racing product sell with the public.
    And the public, media, and the management are singing praises along with me.
    The numbers are self explanatory. 😉

    Hey, I have no problem contributing to the attendance at Colonial. I’ve wanted to visit for the longest time. But in recent years the quality of that meet has fallen rapidly. And that is my concern. For a “boutique meet” to put up the kind of numbers they put up on one of their biggest days has to be disappointing to the management. I’m really not sure what the future holds for that racetrack.

    Maybe they can put to good use all that greenery by hosting Woodstock II gathering in the infield with some all-you-can-drink mugs for students at Towson State. That’ll bolster the attendance figs. 😛

    No but seriously…
    Since Sue and The Backstretch are such good sports in hearing me out. I shall put down on my itinerary to treat you ladies to the ale – and perhaps a Nathan’s too. 😀

  10. TKS
    There’s a slighter (much) higher population for Monmouth to draw fans from. Colonial’s a really nice facility that tries hard to attract people to the track. Give us a break 🙂
    Come visit and I’ll buy you a hot dog 😉

  11. A little know and used alternate route is Route 60 off of I-295. Might have saved you a little time. Spread the word.

  12. Sea Hero, unfortunately Rt. 60 is not as little-known as I’d have liked–sat in traffic there, too, before it opened up as I got closer to Colonial.

    And to anyone’s who offering to buy beer and hot dogs at the track–I accept!

  13. LindaVA –

    To be fair, the tourists haven’t yet arrived at Virginia Beach yet. But I’m not sure what exactly Colonial Downs is doing to make going to the races a good thing for the locals. Last year I heard rumblings that they did not sell Daily Racing Forms on track premises. That’s great isn’t it? (insert flabbergasted emoticon here).

    For a relatively new racetrack that was billed as “The Saratoga of the South”, I think the bar was set pretty high. Instead of approaching that bar energetically, this racetrack is simply limping forward.

    At this stage of the game. Racetracks cannot afford to do that.

    A pro-active approach regarding customer service, lower pricing, special events and days featuring shorter meets with fuller fields is going to be the national trend. Will Colonial Downs and other racetrack like it adapt to survive (and prosper?). We shall find out in about two or three more years.

    As an aside. I am glad Ms. Backstretch had a good time. There’s nothing wrong with that. Have fun. Be Merry. And remember to report the flip side of the coin too. I think that is an important part of blogging. Thank you and have a good day. 😉

  14. I’m on Colonial’s mailing list, and every week I get information about a promotion/party/event of some sort at the track, combined with racing during the season, complementing it in the off-season. I can detail them for you at a later date if you’d like, but I’m sure that many are available on their website. Their efforts at both customer service and outreach exceed what I’ve seen at most other tracks.

    Just what is “the flip side of the coin” that you imply that I’m neglecting? I wrote about what I think is interesting, and what I think will interest my readers–which is what I think is an important part of blogging. =)

  15. Thanks Teresa 🙂
    I think Colonial is doing a good job in the customer service and outreach areas. You’re right, there is always something going on at the track during the race meet and in the off season. Later this summer there will even be a wedding in the winners circle with the lucky couple having an all expenses paid ceremony and reception.
    I think part of CD’s difficulties is simply due to the location, somewhat off the beaten path, and not always easy to get to due to traffic conditions.
    My recollection from the time was they chose that location hoping to attract people on the way to/from VA Beach and Williamsburg. But other than the track there is not much to attract people to New Kent.

  16. ETA: Colonial also has a shorter meet this year and from what I see checking the papers, so far the fields are full or almost full every day.

  17. Look folks I don’t want to belabor the point. Well maybe I do. 😀

    This track is on “life support” and deserves to be presented as that.
    To Ms. Backstretch’s credit she did go out of her way to visit a racetrack and present images from her trip. I enjoyed that. Thank you.
    Here’s hoping more bloggers will make regular trips for live racing.

    But let us not only see the glass as “half-full” or “3/4 full”.
    I’d feel guilty if I reported the worst thing about my trip
    was driving on the NJ Turnpike. That wouldn’t be fair nor balanced.

    Ms. LindaVA – I follow the Colonial signal.
    Simply look no further than yesterday’s card, June 22,2010.
    (9 races) field size: 6-5-7-11-7-8-7-6-8

    65 horses ran for a field size of 7.2
    That field size bolstered by the fourth race in which 11 maiden claimers
    with a tag of $7,500 bolstered the average quite a bit.

    Then I happened to look at the reported attendance figure. 432

    That’s right four hundred and thirty two souls attended
    and contributed $30,632 on track or $71.40 per person.
    Or $7.93 per race. These are numbers that rival State Fairs around the country.

    If my fellow bloggers can come up with a convincing argument that
    with these anemic numbers, that Colonial Downs is going to be around
    for a long time with this type of a meet, with this type of racing, please be my guest.

    Lest anyone misunderstand me.
    Colonial Downs is an underachiever and is capable of much more.
    Let us drop our ales and hot dogs move towards striving to present
    a high quality racing product. 😉

  18. I am totally aware of the precarious position Colonial Downs is in, and has been for the last several years. I think management is making an effort to draw fans to the track and that should be commended. Teresa’s post pointed out that she had an enjoyable day there, in spite of the weather and traffic problems. Constantly pointing out everything that you think is wrong does not, IMO, encourage people to head out for a fun afternoon at the track.

  19. The Knight Sky, I’m with others on this. I grant your facts are head-on, but also look at the glut of Mid-Atlantic racing now: Penn Natl., Philly Park, Colonial, Monmouth, Delaware Park. As we all talk about how, going forward, less is more, it seems to me that the Mid-Atlantic tracks should be the first to practice this. The Colonial Downs management must do whatever it can, and if that means brewfests, etc., more power to them.

  20. A few years back, I made a similar trek, and I, too, was caught in awful traffic! I planned to stay the week end, though, so was able to enjoy two full cards. The crowds and handle seemed larger then.
    Part of Colonial’s problems may stem from its original business model, one which included a management deal with the Maryland Jockey Club, which ran the track for a few years, and provided free horse transport for MD trainers to send their charges to run. While Colonial has done a good job since parting ways with the MJC, it simply does not have the population base (their forecasts of tourist traffic was wholly unrealistic) and the horses to succeed. Maryland’s woes may be a contributory factor. As a small time owner, why would i want to spend $400-500 to get a horse to Colonial, when I can get to CT, Penn, or Delaware for less than half the price?
    Like you Teresa, I truly enjoyed my time there–the people were friendly and warm, the plant was clean, and the turf courses are incredible. I fear that Colonial will become a casualty of a poorly organized industry that currently exhibits all the characteristics of implosion.

  21. Will

    I absolutely agree there is too much not only in the mid-atlantic but all around the country. And that is a major hindrance to the Super Track concept where racing gains more of a national following. And then there is slots dollars supporting Harness Tracks that have no business staying in the game. But that’s another story.


    This future of the game is important to me and when a racetrack is in dire straits, I do believe making a mention of it. Now I understand some bloggers are reluctant to write anything the resembling a negative spin, but I do believe it has a purpose. Perhaps that will serve as a catalyst for change. Constructive criticism never hurt anyone in the racing industry.

    Aqueduct’s paddock was gorgeous when I first started out in the 1980’s. Now it stinks 10x worse than the NJ Turnpike. So there I said it. It wasn’t too hard was it? 😉

    For the record I believe new fans are steadily entering the racetracks and “having a good time”. What is being done to keep them in the game? Allow them to attend regularly, learn and participate. This is a business, not a keg party.

    That said I hope Colonial Downs can turn it around. The track is located in a region that does not conduct live racing for the majority of the calendar year. That is what attracts fans and big bettors to upstate NY and Saratoga.

    Only 432 (gasp!) fans attended yesterday at track that opened with tremendous potential. Well it hurts for me to write that. But it must be written.
    Thanks to Ms. Backstretch for allowing me to express my viewpoints here. Good day to my fellow bloggers. 🙂

  22. I’m impressed 432 people went to Colonial yesterday, given the temperature hit 100 degrees with a heat index of 105. All the free beer on earth wouldn’t have tempted me to the track in that heat.

  23. Interesting posts on this blog. I was at the recent Turf Cup as this was my first visit there this year. I live in Virginia Beach, so I don’t have to tell anyone the difficulty of travelling to CD. As to promoting the race, one of the problems is that our local newspaper does not support the track. Even during the Turf Cup, the paper only ran a news wire report on the race. I truly believe that CD cannot survive without support from Hampton Roads which includes Virginia Beach, the state’s largest city.
    One of the positive aspects of this race, was the makeup of the crowd. A mixture of young and old, couples and singles. This is what is needed to bring back racing.

  24. The Knight Sky, you seem to be confusing the post that I intended to write, and that I did in fact write, with the post that you want to write about the economic sustainability of a given track, or of racing in general.

    You are correct that I am “reluctant to write with a negative spin,” given the deceptive connotations of “spin.” I am not, though, hesitant to criticize where criticism is due. But the simple fact of the matter is that I had a great time at Colonial on Saturday. I saw good racing, I met interesting people, I had a terrific hot dog and tasty beer. I met several committed horsepeople who were more than generous with their time.

    Yet, for some reason, you would like me to find something negative to say.

    Is Colonial in economic trouble? I’ll take your word for the fact that it is. But that has nothing to do with how I spent my Saturday. And as it’s a topic in which you are so interested, I wonder why you are not writing about it on your own site?

    I appreciate your reading, and your comments–thank you for all the conversation you’ve stimulated today. And I agree that constructive criticism has a place in racing. But simply pointing out your dislike of Aqueduct’s paddock hardly seems constructive, and until I can with any credibility tell Colonial how to increase its handle, I’ll leave that to others. Perhaps yourself?

  25. And another note: What attracts visitors to Saratoga is not the paucity of racing the rest of the year. It’s racing in the summer in a city that was a spa and resort long before the first horses hit the track; Saratoga is successful, and has been since 1863, at least in part because it offers visitors much more than horse racing. New Kent, Virginia, unfortunately, can’t make that claim.

    And to everyone who commented today: thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, and for taking the time to write with your insights and opinions–they are a pleasure to read!

  26. The Knight Sky talks about Colonial being on ” life support ” yet blankets the internet with praise for Monmouth, while no racetrack in the country is on more substantial life support than beautiful Monmouth Park. I wish them well, but I also wish the Knight Sky would offer the same honest reporting of their meeting that he purports to give of others here ( instead of his own blog ). Yes, you are being a barnacle on Teresa’s fine and popular blog.

    Go to your blog and HONESTLY break down the financials of their meeting in the same way you criticize all other tracks and I’ll be happy to stop by and correct you. But, pressing your obvious agenda, and biased one at that, on this blog is pretty lame.

  27. I have to chime in and agree that the traffic involved in getting to Colonial Downs is a major deterent to attending the races there and the primary reason why I only attend the races at Colonial twice each year (Colonial Turf Cup and Virginia Derby days). While I live only 90 miles away and it is a straight shot down I-64 from Keswick/Charlottesville, the traffic encountered from the point I-64 intersects with I-295 is ridiculous and adds a lot of time and frustration to the trip. The traffic would not be quite so bad if Colonial ran in either the Spring or Fall when all of Northern Virginia/DC is not trying to head to the Beach/Colonial Williamsburg/Busch Gardens (not to mention the weather would be much more pleasant, as it stands now I will absolutely not show up at Colonial unless I am in the Turf Club/Jockey Club/Suite because its way too hot outside)

  28. I agree that having the races in the summer within the tourist season is a deterent to good crowds.(Also, pretty tough on the horses). When people are faced with either going to Bush Gardens or Colonial Downs when the temperature is in the 90s and humid, it is not a tough decision. I believe that fall racing would be more succesful at CD. Perhaps build a track in the Virginia Beach area for the summer when the tourists are there and then have CD in the fall would benefit everyone. That said, it is an enjoyable experience at Colonial Downs and hope they have a great turnout to see Paddy win. I know I’ll be there and bringing friends who have never been to a horse race.

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