By Joe DeVivo

Colonial Downs will conduct a slightly shorter meet than last year, but has managed to avoid reducing its overnight purses.
Opening one week earlier than usual, a move designed to bring out fans who want to wager on Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, Colonial launches a 40-day meet Friday in New Kent, Va.

While purse levels will be slightly higher than the $210,000 daily average for last year’s 45-day meet, many of Colonial’s 17 stakes had to take purse cuts. That list includes one of the meet’s premier events, the Colonial Turf Cup. Upgraded to Grade 2 status this year, it will be worth $500,000, down from $600,000.

Two other graded events, the Grade 3 All Along Breeders’ Cup and the Grade 3 Virginia Oaks, were reduced from $200,000 to $150,000.

A dozen other smaller stakes were cut $10,000 apiece to $50,000. The savings from the stakes program was plowed into overnight purse funds.

“In order to keep the overnight purse level in line with past years, we had to cut some of the stakes purses marginally,” said Tyler Picklesimer, Colonial’s director of racing.

The Virginia Derby retains its $750,000 purse. The Grade 2 derby, at 1 1/4 miles, and the 1 3/16-mile Turf Cup are the first two legs of the Grand Slam of Grass series for 3-year-olds.
The series continues with the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes at Arlington on Aug. 8 and the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Turf on Nov. 7 at Santa Anita. Any horse that can sweep all four legs will earn combined purse and bonus money of more than $5 million.

Both of Colonial’s marquee races anchor big race days. Turf Cup Day on June 20 includes the All Along and $50,000 Buckland Stakes. The Virginia Derby Day progam on July 18 includes the Virginia Oaks and the $50,000 Kitten’s Joy Stakes.

As usual, Colonial will heavily emphasize turf racing, with 80 percent of its races scheduled for the Secretariat Turf Course, which at 180 feet is the widest grass course in North America.
Five of the races on Friday’s opening-day, eight-race card are on turf. All 10 of Saturday’s races are scheduled for grass.

Perennial training leaders Ferris Allen and Hamilton Smith should dominate the standings once again. Allen has won or shared seven training titles since 1997, including last season’s crown with 31 victories, and finished second to Smith in 2002, 2003, 2006, and 2007. Smith has won or shared the title five times since 1998.

Both trainers flooded the entry box the first two days of racing. Smith has 12 horses, including Hugo, the 5-2 morning-line favorite in Saturday’s $50,000 John D. Marsh Stakes. Allen has entered four horses apiece for Friday and Saturday.

Last year’s leading jockey, Horacio Karamanos, returned home to Argentina last fall and has not ridden in the United States since then. His absence could open things up for Luis Garcia and Malcolm Franklin, who finished five wins apart as the second- and third-leading riders last summer, and Rosemary Homeister.