2019 Colonial Downs Season Recap
Colonial Downs Celebrates Racing Revival In 2019 Summer Meet
Virginia’s first partnership with horses began back in 1609 with the arrival of the first horse to the Virginia colonies. According to many historians, the first American horse races were held in Henrico County, near Richmond, in 1674.
Fast forward 344 years to 2018, when the Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill 1609 which authorized expansion of pari-mutuel wagering laws to include betting on horse races that have already taken place (Historical Horse Racing). That legislation triggered thoroughbred racing’s return to Colonial Downs last summer for the first time since 2013.
In bringing back thoroughbred racing to Virginia, the Colonial Downs Group set about doing it right with goals of establishing a lucrative daily purse program, attractive horsemen incentives, and safety and horse welfare standards and protocols at the highest level of the industry.
In 2019, Colonial Downs offered daily purses averaging $492,000, or a total of $7.4 million over the 15-day season. Led by the $250,000 Virginia Derby (G3) and the $150,000 Faisg-Tipton Virginia Oaks, there were 17 stakes during the meet, with stakes purses totaling $1.8 million.
Colonial Downs also executed wide-sweeping improvements and upgrades to its facility, including a new irrigation system for its world-renowned Secretariat turf course, and renovations to the 1 1/4-mile dirt track, stable area and paddock, receiving and test barns and dormitories.
“Our goal from the beginning was to establish the highest standards in delivering a first class racing and stabling environment for our horsemen by improving the basic structures of the facility and hiring experienced professionals from around the industry to ensure quality and integrity in our product,” said Jill Byrne, Colonial Downs Vice-President of Racing Operations.
The Revival Begins
With the call of “Riders Up” from Kate Tweedy, daughter of Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery, thoroughbred racing in Virginia began a new era August 8, 2019 as Colonial Downs conducted racing for the first time in six years. Foxtale Racing Stable’s Charmn Charlie Ray, ridden by Mychel Sanchez, went wire-to-wire to capture the meet’s first race by a head over Conquest Falcon. In the winners circle, Sanchez said, “I’m happy for everyone who helped get this back going again. This is my first time competing here and it’s a beautiful place. The turf is amazing.”
A Glittering Night for the Virginia Derby
One of the season’s top moments was the 17th running of the Virginia Derby, which along with a stellar under card of three additional stakes, highlighted a “Racing Revival Weekend”.
The 2019 edition, a Grade 3 stakes sponsored by New Kent County, was won by Calumet Farm’s English Bee who held off a late rally from Jais’s Solitude to prevail by a head. Jorge Vargas, Jr. was aboard the Graham Motion-trained son of 2005 Virginia Derby winner English Channel.
“I’ve had a couple of tough beats (in this race) over the years,” said Motion after the race. “This is a tough little horse. He’s really deserving because he always shows up and tries so hard. It’s great to be here with a big crowd on an exciting night. Great racing.” Virginia Governor Ralph Northam presented the Virginia Derby trophy in the winner’s circle.
In the evening’s under card, Godolphin’s Carnival Colors rallied three-wide in the stretch and drew off to a 1¼-length score in the Virginia Oaks to give trainer Mike Stidham his second stakes tally of the night (he also won the $100,000 Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance Kitten’s Joy Stakes with Doc Boy).
“I ran a few horses at Colonial years ago but never came here in person,” Stidham said. “This is the first time we’ve had a major presence here. The purse money is great and both racing surfaces are fabulous. I couldn’t be happier. I wish the meet would never end.”
It’s not often one sees a first-time starter compete in a $100,000 stakes race, let alone win it, but that’s what happened when Breeze Easy’s Four Wheel Drive cruised to a 3 1/4 length victory in the Exacta Systems Rosie’s Stakes. Jorge Vargas, Jr. rode the Wesley Ward-trained son of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to victory in a course-record time of 1:00.84 for the 5½ furlongs.
After the win, owner Mike Hall spoke of lofty ambitions he had in store for Four Wheel Drive. “We bought this horse as a yearling and we’ve trained him through the process,” he said. “Wesley told us it was time for him to compete. We made plans to run this race several months ago and it really worked out well. We’ll probably try to get to at least one more race in then hope to get to the Breeders’ Cup.”
Four Wheel Drive followed his owner’s desires to a tee. The two-year-old Kentucky-bred colt went on to win the Grade 3 Futurity Stakes at Belmont and the $1 Million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint at Santa Anita.
Virginia-Bred/Sired Stakes Bookend Summer Meet
Nine stakes for Virginia-Bred/Sired horses each featured a $100,000 purse and created some memorable moments.
Eagle Point Farm’s homebred filly What the Beep overtook longshot English Heiress in deep stretch to win the first of those, the M. Tyson Gilpin Stakes, by a length on opening weekend. Owner-trainer Godsey was both ecstatic and emotional afterwards. “My family fought so hard for Colonial Downs to get here originally, then fought so hard for it to come back (after a six-year hiatus). The mare’s dam (Toccoa) was the first winner I had as a trainer and to win in front of this huge crowd was awesome. It’s hard to put into words how I feel.”
Later that same evening, Morgan Ford Farm’s River Deep was moved up to the top spot in the Edward P. Evans Stakes by a disqualification of the original winner. The adjudicated victory gave the Phil Schoenthal-trained son of Arch his third Virginia-Bred stakes triumph.
The meaning of that opening weekend event was not lost on Schoenthal. “What’s special about this day is that it rewards all the breeders that hung in there for all those years (with no racing in Virginia) and kept on breeding Virginia-breds. It would have been very easy to ship their mares to Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York or anywhere else, so it was gratifying to see these people being rewarded with $100,000 purses in their home state, on a beautiful night, at a beautiful racetrack.”
Open Company Stakes
Several Open stakes were also contested during the meet. Extravagant Kid, owned by Northern Virginia businessman David Ross, invaded from Kentucky to win the $75,000 Da Hoss Stakes. By year’s end, the 7-year-old son of Kiss the Kid’s career bankroll would stand at $727,214 from 12 wins.
Ross spoke of racing’s return to New Kent. “I can’t tell you how impressed I am with the operation here. It’s just been a step above anything I could ever have imagined. It’s only going to get better from here.”
Reality Horse Racing’s Redeemed Gentleman made a five-wide rally down the lane to win another Open stakes, the $75,000 Old Nelson Starter Handicap, at odds of 39-1. The Maryland-bred rewarded his backers with a $81.80 payoff. It was the first stakes win for owner Jerome Aiken and trainer Anthony Aguirre who ecstatically said, “We don’t often have this kind of opportunity to run at a 1 3/16ths miles distance in Maryland, let alone on turf.”
Statistically Sound – Large Daily Purses and Horsemen Incentives were 2019 Hallmarks
Sparked by outstanding participation from horsemen and racing fans alike, Colonial Downs concluded its five week meet with a total handle of $17.5 million from the 144 races that were conducted. The 1,229 starters came from 17 different states. Average field size was 8.53 horses per race. There were no racing or training equine fatalities from the time the barn area opened on July 25.
90% of the races were held over Colonial’s massive Secretariat grass course which is the widest in the country at 180 feet across. The meet drew top trainers from across the country including Shug McGaughey, Jonathan Sheppard, Arnaud Delacour, Jonathan Thomas, Tom Proctor, Steve Asmussen and Dallas Stewart among others.
Mike Stidham and Jamie Ness led all trainers with 10 wins apiece, with Ness topping the leader board in purses with $293,040. David A. Ross’s DARRS, Inc., led the owner standings with five wins while Trevor McCarthy led all jockeys with 15 wins and $777,590 in total purses. Horacio Karamanos, Daniel Centeno and Mychel Sanchez all tied for second, each with 13 victories.
“By all accounts, our Racing Revival was a great success,” said Byrne. “The 2019 meet was an especially emotional and rewarding season for the hundreds of people who worked so hard over the last year to make the return of racing in Virginia become a reality. We thank our horsemen who participated, to all of our fans who came out and enjoyed a tremendous experience, and to the dedication and support demonstrated by our racing department, officials and track maintenance team which worked long hours with great efficiency in conducting a safe and successful racing program.”