Updated on 09/17/2011 10:56AM

Business is in the green at Virginia track

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WASHINGTON - Many racetracks are plagued by the same, seemingly insoluble problem: a shortage of horses that results in small fields and a lack of good betting opportunities for their customers. Maryland fans were exasperated this spring by the quality of the competition at Pimlico. Hollywood Park, despite its large purses and great tradition, cards a dismaying number of five- and six-horse fields. Delaware Park, even with its bountiful purses, recently put on 45 straight races without a single field of more than nine horses.

Yet one improbable racetrack has bucked this trend: Colonial Downs. Yesterday it had 101 horses entered for a nine-race program, including three full fields of 14. On the upcoming Saturday card, only one of the 12 races has fewer than 10 entrants. The track has an extraordinarily effective way to attract runners.

When Colonial Downs brought racing to Virginia in 1997, the venture seemed so ill-conceived that the track's survival was uncertain. It didn't have a solid core of horseplayers for support, and its location - Middle of Nowhere, Va. - gave it little chance to draw substantial crowds. But when executives of the Maryland racetracks conceived the plans for Colonial, one of their ideas was inspired.

Colonial's turf course was built closer to the scale of the grand tracks of Europe than the typical American bandbox. The outside of the course is a mile in circumference, and it measures 220 feet across - so wide that it is divided into two courses. By moving the inner rail on each, Colonial can use 10 layouts for grass racing.

Most U.S. tracks can run only two or three turf races a day because their grass can take a limited amount of wear and tear. Rain readily forces cancellation of these races because a soft surface will be chewed up too easily. But Colonial can run almost all of its races on the grass because of the course's configuration and a drainage system that allows it to absorb a great amount of water. "This course was designed better than any turf course in America," said John Mooney, Colonial general manager.

Grass attracts runners. Even tracks with a severe shortage of horses can usually put on respectable turf races. A large number of horses in the U.S. prefer to run on grass and get relatively few opportunities, compared to their dirt-oriented counterparts. The imbalance of demand and supply ensures that grass races are almost always well populated.

When horses have failed on dirt, trainers like to try them on grass as a last resort. But tracks that can run only a limited number of turf races don't card these events for low-level horses. Colonial does. Yesterday's third race was a bottom-of-the-barrel maiden-claiming race at five furlongs, drawing 14 entrants - seven of them trying grass for the first time. Such races are invariably wide-open betting affairs with the potential to produce huge payoffs.

And bettors enjoy them, even if the contestants are cheap. "There's no question that the numbers are what count," Mooney said. "They're more important than the quality of the runners. Fourteen-horse fields do wonders. It's almost inconceivable, but we had people betting $1.3 million into Colonial on a Tuesday night."

By establishing its niche as a track that features grass racing, Colonial has generated enough wagering from simulcast customers to make up for its meager ontrack business. (Monday's official attendance was 601.) Although the track doesn't get the kind of exposure in the simulcast market that Laurel and Pimlico do, it has averaged a respectable $1.2 million a day in wagering this year.

Colonial's ability to attract horses and fill its fields ought to give ideas to other tracks - particularly those in Maryland. After Magna Entertainment Corp. purchased Laurel Park and Pimlico, its chairman, Frank Stronach, tossed out numerous ideas for potential improvements, and he proposed the construction of new turf courses. While some of Stronach's ideas were far-fetched, the grass courses should be a top priority.

"We've spent a lot of time over the last six months focusing on our long-range plans," said Joe De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, "and we are looking at the creation of a Colonial-style turf course at Laurel as well as a wider course at Pimlico."

Such improvements might give the Maryland tracks an edge in attracting horses when the summertime racing calendar in the Mid-Atlantic region is so crowded. Unless the Maryland tracks get a windfall from the legalization of slot machines, this may be the only way that they can retain their competitive position. It once would have been unimaginable that anybody would want to imitate Colonial Downs, but many tracks would surely love to replicate Colonial's grass racing.

© 2003 The Washington Post