06/06/2008 11:00PM

Dirt first, then turf takes over


In a move sure to startle the Colonial Downs faithful, the meet opens with more dirt races than turf races carded on the opening program Monday.

Colonial, located midway between Richmond and Williamsburg, Va., is best known for its Secretariat turf course, the widest in the nation at 180 feet, and frequently offers bettors 14-horse fields on grass. Last year, 81 percent of Colonial's races were contested on turf.

Monday's opening-day nine-race card, however, has just four grass races. That's mainly because with eight days of live racing scheduled over the next nine calendar days, Colonial wants to keep its turf course from being overused.

"We're likely to have a few more dirt races than turf races, especially during the first week," said Kyle Fitzgerald, the track's head of media relations. "But we will still have a lot of turf races. We won't be cutting back to two turf races a day."

Colonial, which expanded its meet from 40 to 45 days for this year's eight-week meeting, will offer 17 stakes, highlighted by the Grade 2 Virginia Derby and the Grade 3 Colonial Turf Cup.

The June 21 Virginia Derby, its purse reduced from $1 million to $750,000, and the July 19 Turf Cup, sliced from $750,000 to $600,000, are the first two legs of the Grand Slam of Grass. A bonus of $5 million-plus will be awarded to any 3-year-old who can sweep those two races, plus win the Grade 1 Secretariat at Arlington Park in August and the Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita in October.

Offtrack bettors will have a more difficult time playing Colonial's races. The Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association has blocked Twinspires.com and XpressBet from taking wagers on Colonial's races. Wagering will be available, however, through TVG and Youbet.

In a rule change, Virginia-breds will be eligible for a 100 percent purse bonus in all open races at the meet.

Among the horses who will try to take advantage of the bonus on Monday's 5 p.m. Eastern opening card are Je Suis Prest, who figures to be a leading contender in a first-level allowance turf sprint for fillies and mares (race 7), and the 3-year-old gelding Class Bopper, who is among the 62 early nominees for the Virginia Derby and Colonial Turf Cup. Class Bopper is entered in race 4, a 1 1/4-mile grass race for maidens.

A. Ferris Allen, who has won six training titles at Colonial since the track opened in 1997, and Hamilton Smith, the leading trainer at the last two meets, figure to dominate again with 42 stalls apiece.

Horacio Karamanos, the leading rider three times since 2002, and Luis Garcia, who led the 2006 standings and was fourth last year, are the top jockeys in the colony.