Since the early 18th century when horse thieves were punished by hanging, and winning purses came in the form of shillings or saddles, the competition between fast horses has been an important part of Virginia history. Courses were often quarter mile straightaways in the countryside, horses competing in heats, their owners aboard, flailing away at their fellow riders in order to get the win. No stewards were on the premises to assure a fair run.
It wasn’t until mid-century as affluent Europeans arrived to North America that Thoroughbred racing became the Sport of Kings, mostly for the rich, or those aspiring to a better social status. Races were held on grand plantations near the James River, horses being hand walked from other counties and even Maryland to meet up with their competition. At least 10 racetracks dotted the countryside in the counties surrounding Richmond and Williamsburg in the early 1900s.
Thoroughbred flat racing in the Commonwealth of Virginia has diminished to one venue. Colonial Downs is Virginia’s only parimutuel racetrack which initially opened opened in September 1997 but closed in 2013. The short meets of 30 days caused trepidation from horsemen who were based elsewhere and hesitant to ship to New Kent for just over a month. Maryland ’s horsemen were concerned about a shortage of horses if both meets were to run concurrently, and track owners wanted to run fewer days in order to maintain decent purses.
Deborah Easter, Executive Director of the Virginia Horsemen’s Association said the former track owners did not have a solid source of revenue back then, which was the main issue.” “We hoped approval of Historic Horse Racing (HHR) terminals would supply that revenue and help potential buyers to invest in the “new” track,” she said. “Revolutionary Racing purchased the track and along with new investors created the Colonial Downs Group.”.
“The stars aligned for us,” she said. “In January, represented by the Virginia Equine Alliance we went to the state legislators and the bill was passed allowing for the terminals and Rosie’s Gaming. It was a total team effort from our lobbyists, track representatives and the horsemen to educate the state legislators and gain approval.”
Currently Rosie’s Gaming sustain 3,000 terminals at four different sites as well as live simulcasting from up to 20 tracks from around the country.
Jeb Hannum is the Executive Director of the Virginia Equine Alliance (VEA) which represents the Virginia Thoroughbred Association, Gold Cup Association (steeplechase), Harness Association and the Virginia H.B.P.A. The VEA is a non-profit program which promotes racing and breeding in the Commonwealth of Virginia. A former steeplechase rider himself, Hannum is a supporter of jump racing, which kept Virginia racing alive in the years between the former closure and this year’s opening.
“We were all enormously excited and pleased that Colonial Downs reopened. We all wondered if we’d ever see it again,” said Hannum. “There are not too many examples of racetracks being revitalized after long closures in the United States. To see this happen is such a positive thing for racing. It’s probably the most exciting racing story this year.”
From opening day on August 8th, the enthusiasm of the crowd was apparent. “It was great to be down on the rail listening to the fans as they cheered horses coming down the stretch,” he said. “The first race was one of two steeplechase races, and I heard people gasping, then cheering as the horses cleared the last fence and ran toward the finish line. When was the last time you heard people cheering horses coming down the stretch at any track?” he said. “It’s been a very successful meet: good racing, good entries, prominent horsemen who have supported our cards. We are delighted in every way.”
Vice-President of Racing Jill Byrne called the fans a “melting pot” of a fan base. “It is the previous core group who came six years ago, locals, a new mix from Rosie’s filtering out of the building to enjoy racing as well.” Byrne’s passion for horse racing and her strong work ethic set her up for what has been the most challenging responsibility of her career. A native of Virginia, she was first on board March 1 to oversee the preparation of a grandstand, racetrack, backstretch and administration building that had been empty for six years.
Her resume includes working the control room at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, reporting for TVG, and Senior Director of Industry Relations for the 2017 Breeders Cup Championship. but she is quick to credit her father trainer Peter Howe and her former husband trainer Patrick Byrne for her work ethic. “And I am a lot like my Mom, she was never content to just put her feet up.”
“This is absolutely one of my biggest accomplishments,” she said. “I have done a lot of big things in the racing industry but they pale in comparison. Working with this incredible ownership and management team, we have great people, good promotion from the the media and Fasig-Tipton. There were a lot of people who demonstrated their faith in this endeavor.”
The biggest challenge, according to Byrne, was starting from zero, since there has been no racing at the site for so long. “We had to get everything new—the pitchforks, screw eyes for the receiving barn, to the saddle towels for race days. Things you wouldn’t even think of.
“The challenge of pulling everything together by early August was a big undertaking”, she said “It was massive, operationally. We hired all new people — all the right people, the best in the country . They are people are all like me —they love a challenge, and in my opinion, want to be a part of something special. There is a real sense of pride and accomplishment.”
Early responses from the horsemen during the first week of the meet were positive. “Horsemen from all over have made a point to tell us that their horses are sounder and healthier training over our dirt course,” she said. “And we have horsemen from Louisiana, Kentucky, Maryland and New Jersey offering a lot of variety to the bettors as it’s a different pool of horses rather than the horses and jockeys you see every week.”
The current political climate and the media eye on the racing industry convinced management at Colonial Downs to implement important safety features for both horse and rider. There are the normal pre-race exams by the state veterinarians, as well as nightly meetings between the jockeys, who now use only padded whips, and the stewards to remind riders of the expectations and what won’t be tolerated on horseback.
The mandatory decrease of the maximum dosage of Lasix, the diuretic commonly used in racing from 10 cc to 6 cc benefits the horses especially during the summer heat when they lose additional body fluid from sweating. In addition, to counter the affects of high temperatures and humidity, there are plenty of stations to hose or apply ice to horses. “We are very strict about cooling the horses off fast,” said Byrne, who is a horseman herself, having worked for her father on the backstretch galloping before and after her college days. “Buckets with sponges and ice water, and hoses are available on the walk over to the paddock, and as horses pull up after their races in front of the grandstand, and walk back to the barn area,” said Byrne.
Fans will notice more than just hoof traffic on the track during every race, as both the track’s ambulance and a gator zip along following the field of runners on the outside rail carrying sprayers with ice water.
The final card of the meet on Saturday includes two races over the jumps and five races each worth $100,000 for Virginia-breds. The turf course is still without divots and and the dirt track still offers safe cushion for galloping horses. While the last race horses walk back to their barns, and the jockeys pack up their equipment and move on the their next track, Jill Byrne will be thinking ahead to wrapping up the details from the 2019 meet as well as overseeing the four OTB parlors and the Historic Horseplay Terminals at each of the Rosie’s Gaming parlors. Like she said, she is not one to put her feet up.
by Barbara Luna
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