Posted: Aug. 20, 2021

By Darrell Wood

When Colonial Downs ushered in Thoroughbred racing in 1997, every race during that first meet was held on dirt since the track’s signature Secretariat Turf Course was not yet ready for use.

A year later, Penny Chenery cut a ceremonial ribbon to inaugurate the 180-foot wide grass surface and since then, Colonial Downs has been synonymous with turf racing. The track generally hosts 80% of its races on the massive oval which is 1 1/8 miles around at its outermost rail setting.

On Aug, 18, Colonial completed week five of a seven-week summer race season and at last, the number of dirt races carded has slowly begun to rise. Actually–due to heavy rains early this week–all the races on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were taken off the grass and contested over the 1 1/4-mile dirt track. Eight of those 27 races were originally scheduled to be run on dirt.

On Aug. 23, Colonial’s dirt track will be showcased to an even larger extent, playing host to four $100,000 stakes in the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championship Series (MATCH): the Victory Gallop, Love Sign, Seeking the Pearl and Chesapeake Stakes.

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, winner of three Virginia Derbies, has a trio of horses set to compete. His Paris Lights won the Grade I Coaching Club Oaks in 2020. Much of Frank’s Rockette’s $821,000 bankroll came from a pair of Grade II wins and a pair of Grade I runner-ups. And his South Bend was in the 2020 Kentucky Derby, Travers and Belmont Derby Invitational.

Besides the MATCH quartet, a fifth dirt race is scheduled–a 6 1/2-furlong, $60,000 allowance/optional claimer which has attracted a field of 10.

Carding more races over the somewhat forgotten dirt surface has been a project of Jill Byrne, Colonial Downs Vice-Presdent of Racing Operations, and Allison DeLuca, Colonial Downs Racing Secretary.

“American racing is a lot of dirt racing and here it always seemed like people forgot that we had a dirt course,” DeLuca said. “We made some good dirt races this year and I’m really happy about it. We have a fabulous dirt course. It was almost criminal that people weren’t using it. This year, I feel like we’ve made a dent in it. Trainers and riders have said the dirt track was fantastic and it is. This is my third year at Colonial and over that time, people have said horses come here and they get better going over it.”

Co-leading trainer Michelle Lovell, based at Colonial for the first time ever, has two horses entered in dirt races Aug. 23–Just Might in the Chesapeake and Brooklynn’s Dabomb in the allowance race. She has been impressed with both the turf and dirt ovals.

“The dirt track is a really nice surface and it’s been very fair,” Lovell said. “You can win from anywhere–in front, in the middle and from behind. We’ve won a couple races on it and I’ve been pleased with it. It has been very kind to the horses during training, too.”

Trainer Hamilton Smith had two wins entering action this week. All four horses he entered Aug. 17-18 reached the winner’s circle and he is now tied with Lovell and Ferris Allen atop the trainer standings. The four–Big Rinne, Witty Banter, Peculiarity and McCain–were all slated to run on grass.

“I didn’t think about scratching,” Smith said. “I knew they could run well enough on dirt though I was a little concerned about Peculiarity. I wanted to try her on turf, but that can come later. I think it’s a great surface. It’s one of the best dirt courses around. Horses get on it real well. I haven’t had horses running down, hitting or cutting themselves over it.

“It’s a well-maintained course. I’d like to see even more dirt races. I have some fillies that like dirt and can’t find races for them anywhere. Everything has gone turf for some reason.”

When Colonial Downs reopened in 2019 under the ownership of the Colonial Downs Group–after a six-year Thoroughbred racing hiatus–jockey Mychel Sanchez brought home the first race winner in that “Racing Revival” season. His Charmn Charlie Ray prevailed by a head on the inner turf course. On Aug. 18, he piloted Black V. K. to victory at seven furlongs on dirt.

“I think it’s awesome,” Sanchez said of the dirt course. “We’ve had all the chances to prove it this week. We’ve had rain all week long, and hard rains, too. You can race anywhere on this track right now. It’s in good shape.”

“The safety of both of our track surfaces is paramount and it is important to get such positive feedback from all horsemen about the two tracks, especially under some trying weather conditions,” Byrne said. “Credit the entire track crew, led by Ken Brown, who have done a fantastic job this week.”

Colonial Downs continues its summer season through Sept. 1 with racing every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 1:45 p.m. The $250,000 New Kent County Virginia Derby (Grade III) highlights the meet and is scheduled for Aug. 31.