05/26/2010 11:00PM

Early start, more turf races at Colonial


Colonial Downs has moved up the start of its Thoroughbred racing season as well as first post time for its weekday cards.

The result will be even more turf racing than usual for a track that takes pride in scheduling 80 percent or more of its races on grass.

Colonial, located midway between Richmond and Williamsburg in Virginia, opens for a 40-day meet Saturday with an 11-race, all-turf program, highlighted by the $50,000 John D. Marsh Stakes for Virginia-breds. All nine races drawn for Sunday's card also are on turf.

The Memorial Day weekend opening is the earliest in the 14-year history of the track. Colonial launched its 2009 season on Belmont Stakes Day after usually opening the second weekend of June.

Live racing on Wednesdays will replace Fridays this year, but the biggest change is moving up the starting time for weekday programs one hour to 4 p.m. Eastern. The earlier starting time allows for more turf races later on each card because the track's lighting system only illumnates the dirt course.

"In past years, we ran into darkness toward the end of our cards, so the last two races were automatically on dirt," said Tyler Picklesimer, the track's director of racing. "Now I can schedule our dirt races more strategically."

Picklesimer said he plans to card eight dirt races a week, which translates to fewer than two per program during a five-day race week.

As usual, the season highlights will be packaged into two big days. The Grade 2, $500,000 Colonial Turf Cup and Grade 3, $150,000 All Along Stakes headline a three-stakes card on June 19. The Grade 2 Virginia Derby, down in purse value from $750,000 to $600,0000, and the Grade 3, $150,000 Virginia Oaks top a five-stakes card on July 17.

The Grand Slam of Grass, which offered a $5 million bonus to any horse who swept the Turf Cup, Virginia Derby, Secretariat at Arlington, and the Breeders' Cup Turf, has been discontinued.

Overall, Colonial will offer 18 stakes, including one steeplechase, worth a collective $2 million. Overnight purses will average $181,000 daily, down from $210,000 last year.

Saturday's card drew 115 horses, including a full field of 14 in the last race. The featured John D. Marsh, contested at 5 1/2 furlongs, drew 11 runners, including defending champion Hugo and 2008 winner Frisky Thunder.

Rosemary Homeister Jr., last year's leading rider at the meet with 50 winners, has the mount on the 5-year-old Hugo for trainer Hamilton Smith. Smith has won or shared six Colonial training titles since 1998, including last year, when he saddled 26 winners.

Sheldon Russell, last season's second-leading rider, has the mount on Frisky Thunder, who has been first or second in 6 of 7 starts on Colonial's turf.

Four-time leading jockey Horacio Karamanos, who missed last year's meet while riding in his native Argentina, has 10 mounts on opening day.