TODAY IS the one day of the year when everyone is interested in horse racing.
Today they run the Kentucky Derby.
More than 150,000 people cram into Churchill Down in Louisville for America’s most prestigious horse race. Millions of others, most of whom know nothing about racing, will watch on TV.
Like the Super Bowl, the Derby is more a social event than anything else. Churchill Downs will be pack with ladies wearing $1,000 dresses and fancy hats and men dressed to kill.
Everyone will be sipping mint juleps as they stand at the teller’s window and pretend they know how to bet. Behind them the real handicappers will be shaking their heads and muttering, “Come on! Move it, lady!”
Still, the social bettors take their time and enjoy horse racing’s biggest day.
Oh, there will be some interest in two weeks to see if the Derby winner can also capture the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico (Baltimore) and even more interest at Belmont Park (New York) in June if some colt wins the first two legs of racing’s Triple Crown.
But even the excitement of a possible Triple Crown winner can’t eclipse the social event called the Kentucky Derby. It is the one day when even the best Baptists are prone to stuff $2 into the teller’s window while looking around to make sure none of the church deacons are watching.
While horsemen in Kentucky, Maryland and New York are trying to figure out which is the best three-year-old thoroughbred in the country, Virginia will still be grappling with the future of horse racing in our state.
Although it was sold last week, Colonial Downs, Virginia’s only racetrack, continues to sit idle. There is, however, renewed speculation that this beautiful venue, which features one of the finest turf tracks in America, will reopen next year.
But Colonial Downs has one flaw that its new owner will ever be able to remedy: It was built in the wrong place.
Those of us who are involved in racing contended from the very beginning that New Kent County was not the place for the state’s first racetrack. Virginia’s thoroughbred industry is in Northern Virginia, primarily Fauquier, Clarke and Loudoun counties. That’s where the track should have been built.
But Northern Virginia is too close to Charles Town, Laurel and Pimlico, three long-established tracks, and the owners of those venues fought tooth-and-nail to keep Colonial Downs as far away from their patrons as possible.
New Kent was chosen primarily because many believed that this track would draw from both Richmond and Tidewater, two heavily populated areas. Neither, however, has educated bettors, a fact that quickly became obvious. No handicappers, no money. Even simulcasting couldn’t make the track profitable.
So what will keep a reopened Colonial Downs in business? It certainly will not be these horse racing slot games that the legislature has approved. In case you aren’t familiar with this, patrons would bet on races already run using a slot machine type format. You don’t know the horses or the jockeys. You just bet on the horse’s number.
Trust me, real handicappers will avoid such contraptions like the plague.
A reopened Colonial Downs will face a second problem—horses. There is a shortage of racehorses these days. Charles Town, for example, runs only four nights a week and few races have more than seven or eight horses (a 10-horse field is optimum there).
Owning a racehorse is not for the faint of pocketbook. As an occasional owner, I can attest to that fact. Most successful owners are millionaires who need a fun way to lose money and take tax deductions. In both respects, horse racing is very effective.
Owners will be skeptical of a reopened Colonial Downs until it proves it can survive. Consequently, it will be hard to get horses there. Remember, most of the horse farms are in Northern Virginia and three other established tracks—including Penn National in Pennsylvania—are closer.
The one salvation could be that the Pamunkey Indians build their $750 million casino at Colonial Downs and, as in Charles Town, operate the two gambling venues as one. As with Charles Town, part of the casino revenue could be funneled into horse-racing purses.
Then again, if the Charles Town casino owners had their way, they would likely do away with the racing venue altogether.
So, while the Kentucky Derby remains in Kentucky, the Virginia Derby will again be run at Laurel in Maryland this year.
As for the fate of live horse racing in Virginia, well, it remains up in the air.
It we could only move Colonial Downs to Loudoun County.