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'The perfect storm': With horses from Churchill Downs, Colonial Downs anticipates high-caliber competition
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'The perfect storm': With horses from Churchill Downs, Colonial Downs anticipates high-caliber competition

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For the past two years, Mike Tomlinson got six stalls at Colonial Downs. The Churchill Downs-based trainer sent small strings to the New Kent track, generally keeping four horses in Virginia and saving two empty stalls to send others back and forth from Kentucky.

But this year, with stables at Churchill Downs closed temporarily, Tomlinson brought 19 horses.

For him, the decision to send more horses to Colonial Downs was easy: The track surface has always been excellent and “kind to horses,” there’s plenty of grazing space and his horses have always left the track “sounder and in better condition than they came.”

At Churchill Downs, nearly 1,500 horses have been temporarily displaced, Tomlinson said. As a result, Colonial Downs’ race meets will feature 150-200 horses from Kentucky this upcoming season, according to marketing and communications specialist Darrell Wood.

“I don’t want to sound braggadocious or pompous, but the competition in Kentucky is as tough as it is anywhere,” Tomlinson said. “So when you come from that racing circuit and you come to a circuit outside of Kentucky … you’re probably going to bring a little higher level.”

Less than a week before the 2021 thoroughbred race meets get under way on July 19, the stables had 450 horses, already surpassing the 350 that were on the grounds in 2019, said vice president of racing operations Jill Byrne. The track expects to be at full capacity for race days — about 850 horses. It expects to draw national interest with many high-caliber horses that’ll raise the level of competition, such as those from Kentucky. And with a shift to Monday-Wednesday racing, instead of on the weekends, Byrne expects Colonial Downs to be the No. 1 wagering product on its race days.

“This year is the perfect storm, in a good way,” Byrne said.

The purse money of $500,000 per day remains the same as the 15-day schedule in 2019, but with more scheduled race days this year, Byrne added. Money that wasn’t spent during the COVID-19 pandemic accrued, in addition to funds from historic horse racing terminals and off-track betting, Byrne said. Those large purses attract the best horses, the best trainers and the best jockeys, she added.

Having the barns full means an economic boost for the surrounding area, too. Staff members will spend money in the area for hotels, groceries, and much more, and local agricultural companies will make money off the hay that’s fed to those horses, Byrne said.

With racing on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Colonial Downs won’t have to compete with local tracks that might share the same horses and staff. The decision to shift races to weekdays was made in November, when it was hard to foresee what the COVID-19 restrictions would be for fans. Byrne said the track isn’t sure whether the weekday schedule will be kept in coming years but recognized that it makes it harder for local fans to watch.

The hope is that those from Kentucky return to Colonial Downs in future years. Word-of-mouth is the best selling point for a track, Byrne emphasized, and she takes a lot of pride in the work her staff does to maintain the facilities and amenities.

“It’s just all coming together, and I believe once they get a taste this year, that they’ll keep coming back,” said Woodberry Payne, a local trainer based in Montpelier, when asked about those who came from Churchill Downs.

Because COVID-19 cut the 2020 races short, it’s almost as if Colonial Downs is starting over, Byrne said. The goal is to keep purse structure high because that’ll ensure the quality of racing remains high as well.

Tomlinson said that assuming the purse remains as notable as it currently is, he’ll continue sending large strings to Colonial Downs from Kentucky in the coming years — even after Churchill Downs reopens. Next year might be 15 horses instead of the 19 that he sent this year, but he anticipates investing more resources in future years.

“We’re going to continue to move the numbers up as time goes along,” Tomlinson said.

Churchill Downs’ horses, trainers and jockeys will make the racing in New Kent much tougher this year, Payne said.

The Churchill Downs-based horses raise the profile of Colonial Downs, Payne added, because more people will be paying attention to the quality horses and high stakes. That being said, he emphasized that preparation remains the same despite the increased level of competition.

Tomlinson emphasized that though the expectations are high for his horses and those like his from Churchill Downs, that doesn’t mean they are “automatically good.” There’s always individuals, including locals, who bring very competitive horses.

“We’re set up for something special,” Byrne said.

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