Jill Byrne goes for solo evening runs around the Colonial Downs backstretch and racetrack. She sees progress every day, worries about critters (snakes mostly, but deer and groundhogs were far more common early on) and puts in her miles while thinking about a to-do list that adds one item – at least – for every one she checks off.
But she can’t wait until she’s not out there alone. The Colonial Downs stable area opened July 25 and live racing returns –for the first time since 2013 – Aug. 8. Welcome back, Virginia racing.
When a racetrack dies, it usually stays dead. Havre de Grace, Bel Air, Shenandoah Downs, Atlantic City, Suffolk Downs and so on come to mind. But not Colonial. The track opened in 1997 to much attention thanks to a 11⁄4-mile dirt track and a 180-foot wide turf course. The latter feature became the track’s trademark, before everything went haywire over racing dates and purse structures, horsemen’s needs, ownership’s goals, Virginia Racing Commission decisions and court cases.
Now, everything is different. Virginia approved historical racing machines (similar to slots) in 2018, Revolutionary Racing purchased the track, expanded the gaming opportunities via the launch of Rosie’s Gaming facilities in the state, hired former Breeders’ Cup executive Byrne and started making plans for the return of live racing.
“There’s a lot to get ready for a track that’s been dormant for six years,” Byrne said during a break in her schedule in early July. “It feels like it’s 24-7. We’ve had a lot of help and everyone has been very supportive.”
Among the upgrades and improvements, Colonial addressed:
• The dirt surface by consulting with Mick Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory and the University of Kentucky.
• An improved irrigation system for the turf course.
• A new infield tote board, and paddock tote board.
• Improvements to the paddock’s interior.
• Stable area upgrades including the receiving barn, test barn, individual stalls, dormitories.
• A new jockeys’ room and jockeys’ room kitchen.
“A lot of things just needed cleaned up and fixed because they hadn’t been used in so long,” Byrne said. “It’s a great environment for horses to train and stable and race here. We’ve made a great deal of financial investment to get the facility to be top class. I think people are going to be really excited.”
It’s Byrne’s job to say that, but Colonial’s return adds to the Mid-Atlantic racing menu – providing opportunity to owners, trainers, breeders, jockeys and bettors that haven’t been available in six years. The racing program will include a program for Virginia-bred, -sired and -certified horses, the highest individual mount fees for jockeys in the region via an agreement with the Virginia HBPA and The Jockeys’ Guild. Purses will average $500,000 per day for the 15-day meet and a stakes schedule led by the $250,000 Virginia Derby-G3 and $150,000 Virginia Oaks Aug. 31.
In the past, Colonial entered a management agreement with the Maryland Jockey Club for racing operations. That didn’t come to be this year, so Byrne’s staff includes racing secretary Allison De Luca from Tampa Bay Downs, stall superintendent Carlos Garcia (the retired trainer who also works at Tampa), track superintendent Ken Brown (who was at Colonial before when he worked for the MJC) and others to fill key roles.
“I had people calling me to say they wanted to work here,” said Byrne. “Jeff Wingrove, the racing operations manager, has been a huge resource for me. He was here before and has such a great grasp and understanding of racing overall. He spent a lot of time in the barn area, he knows the mutuels side of it.”
Byrne expects a relatively full stable area, based on stall applications, and expects regional trainers to take advantage of the new opportunities. While starting a racetrack in a time when racing faces criticism for safety issues and horse welfare, she also expects a spotlight.
“When they brought me in, I was adamant about it,” she said of the track’s ownership group and horse safety. “They have a racing background so they know and it’s important to them. I feel like I’ve had to go to them more often than I thought I was going to, but they’ve embraced it. They haven’t batted an eye and we see it as a positive for Virginia, the whole area and racing in general. It’s investing in what’s important for the industry. That matters.”