Dave Fairbank of the Newport News Daily Press wrote a good article last Friday:

Turns out the only thing that Colonial Downs is isolated from is people.

The equine palace off of I-64 opens its 12th season Monday amid as rich and interesting a backdrop as the track has ever experienced.

Historic achievement, soaring gas prices, reasonably priced entertainment, a soft economy, dead animals and antagonistic legislators. Oh, and by the way, the owner has the joint up for sale.

Aside from that, it’s business as usual at Virginia’s only pari-mutuel horse track, where the 45-day thoroughbred meet includes full barns, competitive fields and two major race days.

Owner Jeff Jacobs again has bankrolled the $5 million Grand Slam of Grass, a four-race series in which any 3-year-old that wins all four earns a $2 million bonus. The first two legs will be held at Colonial Downs, on June 21 (Colonial Turf Cup) and July 19 (Virginia Derby).

Jacobs’ announcement last January that he was putting the track up for sale — again — doesn’t seem to have affected the enthusiasm for the track among horsemen.

“I spent an awful lot of time on the road this winter and I think it paid off because we have a full barn area,” said Iain Woolnough, the track’s perpetually sunny vice president and general manager.

“It’s something that’s above me, whether Mr. Jacobs sells or doesn’t sell. My job is to continue racing, whether it sells or doesn’t, and we’ll continue to do that. It’s a great place to be, it’s a great place to race.”

What Colonial Downs isn’t is profitable enough for Jacobs. Much of that is tied to its location — a half-hour from Richmond, at least 45 minutes from Hampton Roads — and resistance from pockets within the state Capitol.

Efforts to get gaming legislation passed that would allow Colonial Downs to augment its purses have become practically a running joke on the floor of the state legislature, so routinely and swiftly are they whacked.

The Dalai Lama will have a ticker-tape parade through downtown Beijing before the state OKs gaming machines. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will tandem skydive before an OTB parlor is built in Northern Virginia.

The latest push is for so-called “instant racing” gaming machines — video machines equipped with thousands of old races that provide just enough information to bet, but not enough to determine where or when the races took place or, in other words, to routinely beat the machine.

That proposed legislation barely saw the light of day. Never mind that advocates didn’t push for machines placed in every 7-Eleven, or that a large chunk of the revenue generated would be earmarked for transportation, a la state lottery money going to public schools.

Funny how some legislators support tobacco and Sunday liquor sales and gun ownership and conceal-carry permits, under the banner of individual freedom and personal responsibility. Yet when it comes to gambling, fair citizens of the commonwealth must be protected from their baser instincts.

But we digress.

West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania have slot machines that supplement their respective racing industries. Maryland, which has long resisted slots and gaming machines, might be prepared to go that route as well, if recent polls are any indication.

“It’s a big problem for us,” Woolnough said, “when the other (states) have this other source of income that we don’t have and has not been forthcoming lately.

“We have something that they don’t have, and that’s the lawn out there,” he said, meaning the signature turf course. “How long that can make it survive out there, I don’t know. … It would be nice to have a level playing field, but unfortunately we don’t.”

The bump that horse racing got from Big Brown’s historic quest for the Triple Crown is in some ways offset by the hit the sport absorbed after the filly Eight Belles’ very public breakdown and on-track euthanasia at the Kentucky Derby.

Colonial Downs’ sales pitch as an economical, family-friendly entertainment alternative is balanced by the fact that Star Trek-style transporters aren’t yet dialed up for New Kent.

“Unfortunately, if you look at the racing in this country right now,” Woolnough said, “the whole economic situation in the United States is taking its toll on racing.”

Attendance and handle are down at nearly all tracks, Woolnough said.

“Disposable income is not there,” Woolnough said. “It’s being disposed of in the gas tank, in the car.”

Colonial Downs feels the pinch, just as you do. Stop on by, they say. Spend as much or as little as you like.
It’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than watching legislators and oil company executives.

Dave Fairbank can be reached at 247-4637 or by e-mail at