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

The following appeared on richmond.com 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.”