“SARATOGA OF THE NORTH” OPENS TODAY

Every now and then that “Saratoga of the South” moniker raises its ugly head during a conversation about Colonial Downs. I call it ugly because ever since Joe DeFrancis mentioned those words, back in the mid-1990s before a single application had been filed, it seems the notion has caused controversy and frequently held a negative connotation for some horsemen and breeders.

His point was simply to create at Colonial Downs (as he envisioned it) a summer stop on a bigger circuit that would feature quality racing – just as Saratoga does for NYRA, and Del Mar and Keeneland do for California and Kentucky. DeFrancis’ optimism was fueled by a population in Maryland churning out $400 million a year in parimutuel wagers and the simple reality of Virginia being a larger and wealthier state.

While Colonial Downs ultimately built a great facility (regardless of the location which is debated to this day for a variety of reasons), everybody overestimated the impact of parimutuel wagering on Virginia while drastically underestimating how hard it would be to build a state-wide distribution network thanks to those pesky local referendums.

In 1995, it wasn’t illogical on DeFrancis’ part to look at a state of 6.6 million and presume it could generate as much in wagers as its neighbor to the north generated from 5 million people. If Virginia were generating $400 million a year in wagers on Thoroughbred racing, and not $100 million from nine OTBs and another $40 million from ADW, the races at Colonial Downs might more closely resemble those at Saratoga – or more likely a combination of the two places. How you close the gap in ages – Saratoga will run its 141st race meet this year while Colonial Downs just concluded its 13th – is another question all together.

What DeFrancis didn’t recognize – probably, because he’d not spent sufficient quality time at Saratoga – was that such a place can’t be duplicated. Start your day at Oklahoma with some jump trainers, then go to breakfast at the Reading Room or hit the Spring Street Deli for an egg sandwich and a Daily Racing Form. Follow that up with a stroll downtown for some shopping and an art gallery or two.

Head over to FasigTipton for lunch and some casual yearling viewing from the bar (no tire kicking, please). From there you can walk to the track or you can ride your bike over and watch and wager from the backside (if you have a license or really fast bike), you can go casual to the grandstand or wander about in the “backyard” under the trees adjacent to the paddock.

The third option is to get dressed up just a bit and find a seat in a crowded box with like-minded horsemen or racing fans. You can dine there, but who wants to start the day of racing by burning a huge tip to get a table?

After the races, pick a bar for happy hour and have the post race “Coulda, woulda, shoulda” debriefing on the day’s wagering. Go home to freshen up – if it’s really hot jump in somebody’s pool as you walk home (doesn’t have to be your pool. Just jump in with your clothes on and make a hasty retreat – not that I’ve ever done anything like that).

That evening, go to the yearling sales for awhile and if that’s not your cup of tea head out to one of the many nice restaurants including the one at the Saratoga Harness. After dinner go the Parting Glass for your jump jock fix and some darts and then get your sale results and night cap at Siros (remember to bring your wallet, and if you can pull it off “somebody else’s” wallet!).

Repeat until you are either exhausted or broke or both.

That’s why Colonial Downs can never be the Saratoga of the South.

Your options in New Kent are severly limited. Go to the races. Go to Dairy Queen. Repeat.

And then there’s the racing…

When the starting gate opens today for the first race, the granddam of American horseracing will launch its 141st season. It is the greatest race meet in America. Don’t let any hard boots or Del Mar advocates tell you anything different.

Over the course of its 36-day meet, with live racing daily except Tuesdays, Saratoga Race will offer $25 million in purses – tops in the nation – and 34 graded stakes, highlighted by the 140th running of the Gr.I $1 million Shadwell Travers Stakes on Aug. 29.

Both Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird have the “Mid-Summer Derby” penciled in on their schedules, but Preakness heroine Rachel Alexandra may well be eyeing a rematch with the boys in the 1¼-mile race if she doesn’t go in the Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama the previous week.

The stakes calendar has been rearranged from last year so there is at least one Grade 1 race every Saturday, beginning with the Aug. 1, $500,000 Diana for fillies and mares going nine furlongs on the turf.

Simply put, that schedule is going to be hard to duplicate in the South or anywhere else!