05/31/2012 2:42PM

Colonial: Night racing should help ontrack business


An off-season construction project has hopefully solved two problems that have discouraged patrons from attending the races at Colonial Downs each summer.

By shifting the focus of the facility’s light standards from the 1  1/4-mile dirt track, where the lights were primarily used for harness racing in the fall, to the turf course, where 80 percent of Colonial’s Thoroughbred races are run, the Virginia track can avoid running most of its eight-week, 32-date season during the day, when oppressive heat and traffic jams from beachgoers on Interstate 64 were major drawbacks to fans.

Colonial will open its season this weekend with two daytime programs on Saturday and Sunday, but thereafter, all Thursday, Friday, and Saturday cards will begin at 7  p.m,. Eastern. Sunday racing will continue to have a first post time of 12:55 p.m.

The $700,000 project to move most of the light standards from outside of the dirt track to inside of the turf course, to illuminate the grass surface instead of the dirt, was completed in late March.

As usual, the season’s highlight will occur on the next-to-last weekend of the meet. The Grade  2, $600,000 Virginia Derby and Grade  3, $150,000 Virginia Oaks anchor a five-stakes card on July 21.

Two other major event days are scheduled for June 16 and July 27.

The June 16 card features the eighth running of the $500,000 Colonial Turf Cup and three undercard stakes. Formerly a Grade 3 race restricted to 3-year-olds, the Turf Cup was opened to 3-year-olds and up last year in an attempt to attract past champions.

On closing weekend, Colonial will package five, $50,000 stakes for Virginia-breds. Coined the Commonwealth Turf Festival, the July 27 program will feature five grass stakes – the Oakley, Daniel Van Clief, Bert Allen, Brookemeade, and Jamestown. All had been run on separate days until last year.

Opening day marks the 80th running of the Strawberry Hill Races, a series of steeplechse events topped by the Grade 3, $50,000 David “Zeke” Ferguson Memorial.

The program will consist of five races for jumpers and seven on the flat.

The festivities include tailgating in the infield. New this year is a lower-priced, $20 infield party ticket that allows patrons to carry picnic and party supplies into an infield spot right along the inner rail.

The Ferguson, which goes as race 9, is contested at 2 1/4 miles. Via Galilei, winner of the Grade 3 Temple Gwathmay at Middleburg on April 21, will concede between 6 and 14 pounds to his five opponents.