'Grand Slam of Grass' Gets Green Light

Colonial Downs' plan to offer the "Grand Slam of Grass," a major turf series for 3-year-olds that carries the potential for $5 million in total purse awards, was well received by the Virginia Racing Commission March 16. The track has hired a marketing agency to push the series.

"We've gotten agreements with the parties concerned," John Mooney, general manager of Colonial Downs, said during an interview after the commission meeting.

The inaugural $500,000 Colonial Turf Cup June 25, and the $750,000 Virginia Derby (gr. IIIT) July 16 are the first two Grand Slam of Grass races to be held on the "Big Red Green," the Colonial Downs turf course named after Secretariat. The third leg will be the $400,000 Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT) Aug. 13 at Arlington Park.

The $2-million John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) Oct. 29 at Belmont Park will round out the series. The 3-year-olds will compete against older foes in the Breeders' Cup event.

Jacobs Investments, a company owned by Colonial's Downs' chief executive officer Jeff Jacobs, has guaranteed a $5-million payday to a horse that sweeps the series. By offering a bonus estimated to be $2.8 million in addition the winner's share of the purses of the four races, the $5-million payoff could lure European 3-year-old turf horses to America in advance of Breeders' Cup day. A $2-million bonus was initially discussed.

"It seems to be well thought out," racing commission chairwoman Anne Poulson said after the meeting. "It provides the marquee events that draw attention to Colonial Downs. That's important for a young track considering that you're competing with Mid-Atlantic states that have slots money."

Track officials are also finalizing an incentive for owners and trainers to keep participating in the series after the Colonial Turf Cup. An announcement is expected in late March for another bonus package awarding the top three finishers in a points system for all four races.

"It's an incentive to stay in the series and for nominations to continue," Mooney said. "We want horses to stay in it instead of looking for other races. We're committed to it."

As expected, commissioners approved an adjustment in Colonial's 40-day meet. It will begin a week earlier, on June 17, and run through Aug. 9.

There will be 3,500 to 4,000 seats added along the homestretch for the upcoming meet. The Leffler Agency, recently hired by Colonial Downs, believes it can fill those seats as well as the others. Colonial's meet attendance has risen each year since 2000.

"The platform is perfect in Virginia because there is market vacancy," said Bob Leffler, who noted Virginia lacks professional sporting events in the summer. "The Tidewater (area of Virginia) is the largest metropolitan area in the country without a professional sports team."

Leffler, who lists the Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers among clients and has worked with several other NFL teams on special projects, contracted with Colonial Downs to provide marketing services. Leffler, whose agency also has worked with Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course in Maryland, believes fans that don't visit Colonial Downs for the Colonial Turf Cup and Virginia Derby will have the opportunity to watch the races on television.

"Our goal is major TV," Leffler said.

In other business, the commission also approved revised medication rules that include increased testing and penalties.

"All regulators should take as strong a position as possible," Poulson said. "We are building into the system measures to make sure Virginia is running as clean an operation as we possibly can. We will have zero tolerance for Class I violations."

Commissioners also granted a license to operate an off-track betting parlor in Henry County. The commission performed a site visit and held a public hearing March 15. Colonial officials project the facility to open in either October or November.

The Henry County site near Martinsville is the seventh facility in Virginia to be approved by the racing commission. Voters also approved parlors in Westmoreland and Scott counties in 2004.