08/29/2002 11:00PM

Hunt meets to run flat-race series

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Virginia-bred and Virginia-sired horses have found a path of golden opportunity on the turf courses of Colonial Downs, the state's only parimutuel racetrack. But the Colonial Downs meeting is brief - only 26 days a year.

"What incentives can we offer the other 339 days of the year to encourage people to breed horses and stands stallions in Virginia? That's our challenge," said Mark Deane, field director of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association. "We've dealt with it in various ways - by offering bonuses for Virginia-breds who win in Maryland and West Virginia, for instance. Now we are venturing into uncharted territory and actually creating a new racing program within the state."

Deane was referring to a series of five flat races for Virginia-bred or -sired runners that will take place at Virginia Steeplechase Association-sanctioned hunt meets this fall.

Called the Old Dominion Turf Championship, the series will consist of four races worth $3,000 each, and a finale - on the day of the International Gold Cup at Great Meadow on Oct. 19 - worth $20,000. The $20,000 event, to be called the Bungalow Billiards (the business enterprise of race sponsor Keith Early) will be the richest flat race ever run at a steeplechase meet in Virginia.

Donors are providing all of the purse money, making the series an unprecedented collaboration between horsemen and the business community, Deane pointed out. Other sponsors are Dresden Farm, Carter McNeely, Hickory Tree Farm, In and Around Horse Country, and the EMO Insurance Agency.

"Getting more flat-racing people involved in the hunt meets has to be good for everyone," said Will O'Keefe, the longtime Virginia horseman who serves as racing secretary for the Virginia point-to-point circuit and as president of the Virginia Steeplechase Association. "The opportunities are not always there for people to run their turf horses in Virginia.

"Three thousand dollars is not a lot of money, but it's more of a purse than has been offered in the past. Most of the flat races at the Virginia hunt meets are training events that aren't run for a purse. It's nice for Virginia people to be able to earn some purses close to home."

Said Early: "I'd hate to see another heritage go to the wayside because someone was not paying attention. That's my motivation in this - to bring heightened attention to the hunt races, and introduce more people to this great sporting event."

The series will begin with the Paula Bennett flat race at Fairfax Sept. 21 and continue at Foxfield (the P. Hunter Faulconer, Sept. 29), Middleburg (James P. Mills, Oct. 5) and Morven Park (Earl Loughborough, Oct. 12). In order to qualify for the championship race on Oct. 19, a horse must start in at least one of the earlier races. Horses earning the most points will be preferred in the championship race.

If there are not enough Virginia-bred or -sired runners entered to fill a race, Virginia-owned or -trained horses will become eligible.

To order a condition book or make an entry, call the central entry office at (703) 777-2575.