Monthly Archives: December 2022

‘Folks Think We Are Crazy’: Colonial Downs to Switch to Weekend Dates in an Attempt to Draw Better Crowds

The following appeared on December 27, 2022 and was written by Jerry Lindquist.

Virginia has never been considered a major player in the world of Thoroughbred horse racing, but recent developments have thrust it into the national spotlight.

Famed operator Churchill Downs finalized its purchase of Colonial Downs earlier this year, and did not waste any time making good on its promise to deliver high-stakes racing to the commonwealth.

The company is moving two of its Grade 1 stakes races, the highest rating given by the sport’s sanctioning body, to the New Kent track for the 2023 season.

The Arlington Million, Beverly D. Stakes and Secretariat Stakes (a Grade 2 race) will be held August 12 at Colonial Downs in a one-day extravaganza of racing that Churchill’s executive director of racing, Gary Palmisano, thinks will be worthy of national network television – possibly on NBC.

The move didn’t come without controversy. The Arlington race was moved from the company’s now-shuttered track in suburban Chicago, and the Kentucky-to-Virginia move is a major switch within the industry.

The American Graded Stakes Committee, entrusted with regulating designations, met Churchill’s request to move the races after what was described as one of the most contentious discussions since the 11-member group was formed 49 years ago. In the end, industry publication Horse Racing Nation reported that the vote in favor was 6-to-5.

It’s another switch, though, that made waves locally.

The track is switching from its Monday-through-Wednesday racing formula – which produced record wagering – to Thursday-through-Saturday for the 2023 meet, which will run from July 13 to September 9. (Post time will be 1:30 p.m.)

“We could have hit the easy button and ran Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays … like every person we talked to has told us to do. Folks think we are crazy,” Palmisano said at a recent Virginia Racing Commission meeting. “We understand the challenge … and ask for a year to navigate through the process, make this the best we can make it, then re-assess.”

The Commission expressed concern during its Dec. 14th gathering that the new times would go head-to-head with the more prestigious races being run at Saratoga.

While Churchill’s vice-president for gaming operations, Jack Sours, acknowledged it was a gamble, he said the goal was to attract larger in-person attendance. To accomplish that meant Fridays and Saturdays and, down the road, Sundays – with twilight racing as well.

In 2022, Colonial’s average live attendance for 26 days (one day was lost to hot weather) was about 1,700 … which accounted for only 10 percent of the betting handle.

In 2011, the Virginia Derby drew a reported 10,100 for the event’s first night race. More than 5,000 were on hand for this year’s Derby when the 11-race card generated a track-record handle of $6.5 million, surpassing last year’s former standard of $4.8 million.

At the VRC meeting held at Colonial, Frank Petramalo, the longtime executive director of the Virginia horsemen’s association, questioned the change, noting Colonial used the Thursday-through-Saturday format for one year after the track re-opened in 2019 … and betting had more than doubled since then.

He noted the average off-track handle went from approximately $1.1 million daily (2019) to $2.2M (2021) and $2.8M (2022), both track records.

In addition, Petramalo questioned Churchill’s expectations of significantly increasing live attendance at Colonial Downs. And, neither did he buy their argument that Saratoga, which will have a 1:05 post time, seldom started on time and therefore Colonial Downs should not be hurt badly by betting on races at the iconic track in upstate New York.

“Let’s not kid ourselves … in this digital age … most racing is watched on TV and the internet … and that’s reflected by the people who are wagering. It’s nice to have fans at the track, but let’s be realistic. If a [bettor] has a choice between watching a card at Saratoga or Colonial Downs … I’m sorry … but it’s going to be Saratoga,” said Petramalo, who indicated the horsemen would favor Sunday-through-Tuesday here instead. “It’s crazy to give up our Mondays and Tuesdays. We’ve established ourselves. We’re beating everyone else in the market. Let’s look at the data … not go on wishful thinking.”

The commission heard Petramalo but didn’t listen, voting 5-0 to approve Churchill’s plan for the coming year.

Details haven’t been announced – like purse structure – but the Arlington and Beverly D. will be the first top-level Thoroughbred races held at Colonial, although it’s doubtful either will pay more than the $1 million that first Colonial owner Jeff Jacobs handed out for the Virginia Derby in 2006 and 2007.

That was part of his ill-fated, thee-year “Grand Slam of Grass,” a four-race affair that included the Secretariat Stakes. It also marked the Virginia Derby’s first of 11 Grade 2 runnings at Colonial Downs. Now Grade 3, the 2023 Virginia Derby will close the meet on Sept. 9.

Palmisano said daily purses would remain at $600,000 or more, which naturally pleased Petramalo, even though he wondered how that record-track amount under the former owners could be maintained by switching dates.

“I know we’re diving into the deep end,” Palmisano said. “But we’re going to make it happen.”

Colonial Downs Receives 2023 Race Date Approval That Features a Thursday, Friday & Saturday Schedule

Colonial Downs race dates for 2023 were approved at the Virginia Racing Commission’s December 14 meeting, and the 27-day, 9-week meet features a move to partial weekend racing after several years of operating on a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday afternoon schedule.

The summer campaign will run from July 13 – September 9 with racing every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 1:30 PM. The 20th running of the $300,000 Grade 3 Virginia Derby is scheduled for closing day, Saturday September 9. A request has also been made to the American Graded Stakes Committee, as of press time, to consider running a pair of Grade 1 stakes, the Arlington Million and Beverly D, along with the Grade 2 Secretariat Stakes, at Colonial on Saturday August 12. The 2023 live race meet will be the first at Colonial Downs under the operation of new owners, Churchill Downs Incorporated (“CDI”).

A view of Colonial Downs’ finish line during the VRC’s meeting in New Kent December 14.

“There were many considerations taken into account to arrive with this schedule,” said Jack Sours, VP of Gaming for CDI. “The long-term goal of Churchill Downs is to offer racing on weekends. That is our goal to be clear. We feel racing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday is a good first step toward that. This will allow more fans to enjoy racing in New Kent and will allow us to run the Virginia Derby on a Saturday.”

The 2021 and 2022 Virginia Derbies were both held on a Tuesday. The ’22 edition attracted an all-time record handle of $6.5 million. The overall ’22 meet itself offered $612,000 in average daily purses, had 8.35 starters per race and saw 1,382 horses from 321 trainers compete in the 9-week session. Approximately 40,000 fans attended the races on track.        

Capensis, with jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., captured the 2022 Virginia Derby (Coady Photography).

“Another consideration in this process was finding a consistency in the post times. As we enter into this more competitive schedule, we need fans to be able to find our signal easily. Saratoga normally starts at 1:05 PM or a little bit after, so we can start after their first race and continue in that manner through the afternoon. Another key consideration was the ship-ins. We have a lot of horses that ship from Maryland and other areas so by having consistent matinee post times, it will be easier for them to plan and then get back home at a reasonable hour.”

From a fan standpoint, the new management team will face some hurdles. 

“Moving to new days and times will require a lot of human resources,” added Sours. “We have to staff the place to accommodate large Saturday crowds and we know that’s not going to be an easy challenge. We’re all aware of staffing issues these days but we’re committed to overcome that challenge. There’s also the logistic piece as to how this will all flow,” he continued. “We want to get our feet on the ground with this new schedule, then can always come back with further adjustments. The final consideration is the opportunity to host corporate outings on Thursdays and Fridays. We have found success with that piece at our other properties. It will give us a chance to expose racing to a new audience and drive attendance.”  

Summer racing in New Kent provides unique scenes on occasion.

Sours said HHR handle is on pace for $3.9 billion this year, a 25% increase over the prior year. He expects that Colonial will add more Historical Horse Racing (HHR) terminals in 2023 which could result in additional race dates come 2024. There are currently 2,606 machines in operation between six Rosie’s Gaming Emporium sites. He projects that two more could come on board as early as September next year. The Rosie’s in Emporia will have 150 and the first phase of “The Rose” gaming resort in Dumfries is expected to open with 1,150 terminals. 

“More HHR means more race dates,” said Sours. This will allow us to add more dates and possibly race over the entire weekend instead of just Saturdays. We may even explore evening racing in the future but we need to understand the entire operation first before we can even think about that. That’s something we’ll have to work towards.”

Gary Palmisano, CDI’s Executive Director of Racing, spoke at the meeting and addressed the strong safety record of Colonial’s turf and dirt surfaces. “It’s a very well kept track and we want to continue to maintain what already is in place,” he said. “The track crew that has been on board — that includes Harrison Young, Ken Brown and James Jackson — will not change.”

Horses will be out of the gate July 13 at Colonial Downs (Coady Photography).

Palmisano noted the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s Triple Crown run will be an important element of Colonial’s promotional focus in 2023 especially if the Secretariat Stakes is held in New Kent along with the other two Grade 1 stakes. 

“It will take some doing, but if we are able to get those three historically important stakes here on August 12th, our vision is to make that one of the biggest days in Virginia horse racing history with thousands of people on hand. There isn’t a Grade I stakes in this area after Preakness Day.”

Another key Saturday event will be the annual Virginia-Bred Stakes Day along with others in the planning stage. “We’re talking to a lot of people about promotions that can bring people in. Our goal is to make every Saturday a really big event day.” 

Work has begun in earnest to make the 2023 meet under CDI’s leadership a success. “Folks think we’re crazy for taking on this schedule,” said Poliseno. “We could have hit the easy button and continued to run on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday like everyone told us to do. We just want to have one year to navigate this new schedule and see how it goes.”   

Updates in the coming days will be available at and `   

Jill Byrne Leaving Colonial Downs After “Exhausting, Rewarding’ Tenure

The following appeared at “” December 12 and was written by Nick Hahn.

With the November closing of a multistate sale of assets from Peninsula Pacific Entertainment to Churchill Downs, the upcoming Virginia Racing Commission meeting on December 14 will provide new insight into a new era of racing at Colonial Downs.

One thing will certainly be different. The new track owners will move forward without Jill Byrne, who served as Colonial’s Vice-President of Racing Operations from its 2019 reincarnation following a six-year stoppage. Under Byrne’s leadership, Colonial attracted a wide array of horses and horsemen, achieved record wagering handle figures, and maintained a strong safety record.

Byrne spent much of her professional career with Churchill Downs, first as an on-air signal host and later directing broadcast operations, helping to modernize the way racing, including the Kentucky Derby, is received.

So it might have seemed a logical fit for her to remain in her Colonial role for the new ownership. In fact, Byrne said she was encouraged to stay on at Colonial and had praise for both Churchill and the situation the company will inherit in Virginia.

“I appreciate the offer from Churchill Downs to stay on at Colonial Downs,” Byrne said. “Churchill is like horseracing family to me. I was there a long time and have some incredible friends and colleagues there. I have huge respect for management. They are extremely smart — very sharp at what they do. One thing I’ve shared with them is that the sky is the limit in Virginia for the horse industry. Churchill Downs has the team and resources to support the continued growth in Virginia and success that I’m proud to be a big part of the last four years.”

Colonial, which began racing in 1997, was shuttered following its 2013 meet amid acrimonious disputes between the state’s horsemen and then-track owner Jacobs Entertainment. When the state legislature approved “historical horse racing” machines, leading to the sale of Colonial, Byrne was approached by the new owners with “an opportunity just way too exciting and challenging for me to turn down.”

That allowed her not only to spearhead the return of racing to Colonial but to do so in her home state. Byrne grew up in Virginia, her father Peter Howe a trainer for Marion duPont Scott, who had horses at Belmont Park and at Montpelier, James Madison’s Virginia estate, which she owned.

Jill Byrne
From 2019, Jill Byrne at Colonial’s annual turf burn. Photo by Nick Hahn.

It was perhaps Byrne’s work ethic and success with Colonial’s quick rise that contributed among other factors in turning down the chance to circle back with Churchill Downs.  Byrne, visibly and invisibly, managed Colonial’s return in 2019 from a five-week, 15-day meet to a record-breaking 27-day meet conducted over nine weeks in 2022.

The complexities and logistics of a growing seasonal meet in a state that doesn’t have year-round racing required demanding “minute-by-minute, boots-on-the-ground, A-to-Z operations,” Byrne said.

Average daily handle in 2022 reached nearly $2.9 million, a record for the facility. Each of the final two days of this year’s meet saw more than $6 million wagered on Colonial’s product – the two best days in the track’s history.

“It was four years of what we did to get to this point to make Colonial Downs and Virginia racing so valuable to Churchill Downs,” observed Byrne. “It was exhausting and rewarding at the same time when you’re the one person responsible for the entire racing part of it — the safety and everything that goes with it. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.”

As rewarding as it was, however, it’s important for Byrne not to have her decision confused.

“It’s my choice, my decision, my future which is very important to me. It was going to have to be change regardless,” explained Byrne. “I’ve seen what Churchill can do, and I think they are going to be a huge asset.”

Byrne, with Stall Superintendent Carlos Garcia.

Byrne was born and raised in Virginia, and most of her family lives nears Charlottesville. She graduated from the University of Virginia before moving to Kentucky. Byrne’s father passed away in September. The event may have changed her family dynamic, but don’t expect it to put her out to pasture. She’s resolved in her commitment towards racing’s future.

“I look forward to continue to make a positive impact in the horse racing industry that has literally been my life from the day I was born and that my dad made sure that I took on every challenge and got me where I am today,” she said.