While preparations are being made for the 2007 celebration commemorating the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Colonial Downs officials are looking forward to experiencing their own "new world" this summer when the Virginia racetrack opens for live racing June 16.
Instead of taking to arms, Colonial purchased its right to self-management last fall when it acquired the Maryland-Virginia Racing Circuit for $10 million and then extinguished it. Under the previous management agreement, Colonial was managed by the Maryland Jockey Club.
Members of Colonial's new management team include Iain Woolnough as general manager and Randy Wehrman as racing secretary. They said they appreciate the role the MJC has played in Colonial's formative years but are eager to be on their own.
"The Maryland Jockey Club put a great foundation in this place, and now it's up to us to build on it," Woolnough said. "Colonial Downs may be on its own, but I'm not. We've got a great team of people here that have been here a number of years. I've been in most areas of racing on the front side and backside. At a lot of racetracks, there is a division between those two. I don't have that or want that. It's one unit.
"We've put on a fine venue for the horseman and the people. They are the ones that support us. That's what makes it work. We want to make sure every horseman that comes here has the opportunity to run."
Wehrman's job is to assure that those horsemen have room to run in full fields, and sees Colonial's durable, big turf course as his primary tool. Wehrman most recently served as stakes coordinator at Turfway Park in Kentucky and River Downs in Ohio.
"I can write lower, mid-level, and upper-end races because you can race so much over it," Wehrman said. "You can offer various categories of races--mid-level or even lower claiming races and allowance races where people can be competitive where they don't have as many options anywhere else."
Wehrman has set an ambitious goal of improving on Colonial's 9.6 average field size on the Secretariat Turf Course. An average of 6.8 horses raced on Colonial's dirt track (32% of total races) last summer despite the problems that developed with the surface. Prior to last summer's meet, the dirt track had been prepared with too much red clay, and after a torrential rainstorm was closed for several live racing days. The comedic prophecy of pulling races off the dirt to the turf at Colonial had come true.
"I know that they are depending on me a lot because of my networking with horsemen in Kentucky, the Midwest, and Florida, but the Maryland people are still key to this," Wehrman said. "The barns have never been completely full before, but they will be full this year for a varied group of horsemen, not just Maryland horsemen."
Woolnough, a former jockey who has ridden horses worldwide for owners such as Queen Elizabeth II and the Aga Khan, has been with Colonial since it grand opening in September 1997.
"Virginia has always been horse country, but not necessarily racehorse country," Woolnough said. "There has been a learning curve for everyone who was here (since Colonial opened). There were problems early on but that is now water under the bridge. Colonial has been on a steady course to improve every year. If you look around the facility, you'll see changes and improvements that will continue every year. It's important to (Colonial owner Jeff Jacobs) to have that done."
Jacobs has credited Woolnough for the idea that has established twin million-dollar 3-year old turf races--the Colonial Turf Cup and the Virginia Derby (gr. IIT). The two Colonial races make up the first two "bases" of the Jacobs Investments $5-million Grand Slam of Grass. The $400,000 Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT) for 3-year olds on the turf at Arlington Park, and the $3-million John Deere Breeder's Cup Turf (gr. IT) make up the last two parts of the bonus series.
Wehrman would like to offer previous Virginia Derby runners a chance to return to Colonial to race. "I foresee in the near future we will have an older turf race of that caliber to get those horses back on the grass, and maybe some other niche races to raise the appreciation of turf horses in North America," he said. "We have the facility to do it here"
Woolnough, in the long term would like to take it a step farther.
"In regard to the racing surfaces, you could run the Breeders' Cup (World Championships) here," he said. "But the Breeders' Cup has standards has far as seating and stuff like that. We have the land but everything takes time and money. Compared to other racetracks, we are still an infant. We've come a long way in 10 years. A lot of racetracks don't get this far in 50 years. We just want to make sure we don't run too fast."
For this summer, Wehrman is aware of the competition to attract horses, especially with the number of summer racing venues in the Mid-Atlantic region. Among the area Thoroughbred tracks racing live during the Colonial meet are Delaware Park, Philadelphia Park and Penn National Race Course in Pennsylvania, Monmouth Park in New Jersey, and Charles Town Races & Slots in West Virginia.
"At any given time, the average horseman has five or six condition books in his pocket that he is looking at," Wehrman said. "So the challenges will be to fill races, especially the dirt races. We don't have the purses that West Virginia and Delaware have with the slots, but in those places, racing isn't necessarily in the forefront.
"In Virginia, racing will be in the forefront, and I'm really pleased about that. There is nowhere else that I would want to be right now."