NEW KENT — Fast approaching the midpoint of its 2023 summer thoroughbred racing schedule, Colonial Downs Racetrack in New Kent is prepping for a big weekend — the inaugural Colonial Downs Festival of Racing on Saturday, Aug. 12.
The event will feature two Grade 1 Stakes: the Arlington Million and Beverly D., and the Grade 2 Secretariat Stakes. By comparison, the track’s 20th running of the Virginia Derby, slated to close the season on Sept. 9, is considered a Grade 3 race.
“We’re going to have the first chance not to see one, but two Grade 1 races on the same day here,” Darrell Wood, Communications Director for the Virginia Equine Alliance, who has been involved with the track since the late 1990s, said. “It’ll be the biggest day in recent history here, as far as the quality of horses we’re going to get. It far and away will be the biggest day ever.”
Wood said the challenge now is getting fans who may only be familiar with the Virginia Derby to realize the quality of competition coming to the track.
“It’s going to be a hot, heavy 10 days to try to educate people that you’re going to see the best of the best, and it’s the first chance ever in this area,” he said.
The three races were moved from the now-closed Arlington Park in Illinois to Colonial Downs by the track’s new owner, Churchill Downs Incorporated, the parent company of the Kentucky Derby. The company’s $2.75 billion deal to purchase Colonial Downs and all six Rosie’s Gaming Emporium locations in Virginia was finalized in November of last year.
“That’s a big impact. The fact that they’ve got the experience in hosting one of the biggest sporting events in the world — the Kentucky Derby — and they can bring that expertise here bodes well for the future,” Wood explained.
Weekend racing returned in July every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, a move from its previous schedule of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. A big part of that change was to present a more family-friendly experience.
“The betting here was fantastic the last three years, but when you’re running on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, you’re kind of limited. People work and go to school,” Wood said. “We’ve only had two Saturdays so far, but I’d say about 3,500 people each day. There’s an energy that’s so great to see back here.”
Between the grandstand area, the casino, a three-tier dining room that can hold five 600 people, the private Sky Suites and the Turf Club level, Colonial Downs has plenty of options for big events.
“At its at its max it can hold 10,000 people, for something like the Virginia Derby, and hopefully a week from Saturday,” Wood said.
Family activities and entertainment offered trackside include a new family-friendly zone featuring a rotation of activities including a petting zoo, face painters, a bounce house and more. A number of food vendors are new to the track as well, and kids often have the chance to meet some of the working horses up close. Plus, there are several promotional giveaways.
The track hosts its racing on two nationally renowned surfaces. The Secretariat Turf Course is the widest turf course in North America at 180 feet wide, and the course’s 1 1/4-mile dirt track is second in length only to Belmont Park.
“Our bread and butter is the grass course. And it’s the widest crash course in North America. We’ve got the inner turf course and outer turf course. People come here expecting their horses to race on grass,” Wood said. He added that at other tracks, opportunities to race on grass might be limited to the better horses in a trainer’s stable. “Here you can be the last man of the bench, you’re still going to be able to run. So this was given us a niche over the years to attract people during the new stables from around the country.”
Wood is keen to get the word out to fans just what Colonial Downs has to offer.
“Our average purse distribution per day is $600,000. It’s mind-boggling. In the old Colonial 200,000 was an average. We’ve really upgraded the product,” he said. “Some of the best trainers in the country have horses here regularly. Great jockeys come in, so it’s definitely on the rise under Churchill’s leadership.”