06/15/2005 12:00AM

No slots, but lots of good racing

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Oh, to be free of the temptation of slot machines.

Virginia racing interests have that luxury, if you can call it that. While racetracks and horsemen to Virginia's north and west throw almost their entire political efforts into either getting slot machines or retaining the lucrative revenues that the machines have brought, Virginia's racing industry accepts the reality that slot machines won't be legalized anytime soon, if ever, in their state.

As a result, Colonial Downs, which is in its ninth year, is something of a throwback in the racing industry, a facility that is counting on building a better racing product through year-round simulcasting at a wide-ranging network of off-track betting sites; by account wagering over the Internet and by telephone; by presenting full fields of competitive races into simulcast-land; and by making a day at the races comfortable for both new and old fans.

In a phrase, it's the horse racing, stupid.

"We don't have any other options," said John Mooney, the track's general manager, about Colonial's strategy. "The only way to grow the business is through the OTB's and account wagering and putting on great racing."

So far, the strategy has paid some dividends, with increases in racing days, handle, and attendance the past four years. Colonial Downs will open on Friday for an expanded 40-day meet, up from 34 days last year. Even with the additional racing days, average daily purses at the track will top $210,000 this year, up 5 percent from last year, and up from $187,660 in 2001, when the track ran only 25 days.

Late last year, Virginians in four counties approved off-track betting parlors, and by the end of 2006, Colonial Downs expects the state to have nine OTB's that will take in $200 million in bets, double the handle from 2004. In Maryland, where political efforts have been almost exclusively focused on slot machines for the past five years, two OTB's cover the entire state - and one is just over Virginia's northern border. West Virginia, where slot machines are already legal at racetracks, has no OTB's.

On the account-wagering front, the Virginia Racing Commission last year pushed through rules opening the state up to operators other than the company owned and operated by Colonial and its account-wagering partner, Philadelphia Park. As a result, the commission licensed both Television Games Network and XpressBet to take wagers from Virginia customers early this year.

Before TVG and XpressBet were licensed, the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and Colonial cut deals with TVG and XpressBet that allow for "source-market fees" on any wager made by a Virginia resident, at approximately 10.5 percent of each dollar bet. Half of those fees will go to Colonial, and the other half will go directly to the horsemen's purse account.

"We think there's great potential for account wagering in the state, especially since most of our farm owners are a long way away from any OTB's," Mooney said.

Three OTB's are slated to open later this year, augmenting the six that Colonial already has in operation, but there is still one glaring hole: northern Virginia. Colonial has been unsuccessful so far in getting a local referendum to pass in the north, where the state's population is concentrated and where the OTB's could draw patrons from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

"That's one place we haven't been able to crack," said Frank Petramalo Jr., the executive director of the Virginia HBPA. "And it could be very important, because all the money and most of the people are up north."

"We're continuing to explore areas in northern Virginia that will be receptive to us, but it's been very, very tough and very, very frustrating," said Mooney. "But we'll keep trying and hope for the best."

The live racing meet is also going to be expanded over the next several years, with agreements in place to run 42 days in 2006 and 50 days in 2007. Both Petramalo Jr. and Mooney said the expansion will help lure more trainers to Colonial, since trainers will likely be able to squeeze in an extra race for many of their horses with the additional days.

But with more days comes more wear and tear on the grass course, so Colonial is looking to card more dirt races in the future. Throughout the past eight years, Colonial has carded about 90 percent of its races on the grass, a number that Mooney hopes to reduce to 60 percent when the track goes to 50 days in 2007.

"That's another way to get more trainers," Mooney said. "Right now we have guys only bringing down grass horses, splitting up their barns. This way, they'll have reasons to bring more horses down, and that can only help us and our fans."

At a glance: Colonial Downs

RACING SCHEDULE: 40 days; June 17-Aug. 9, Friday through Tuesday

POST TIME: 1 p.m. Eastern Saturday and Sunday; 5 p.m. Friday, Monday, and Tuesday

ADMISSION/PARKING: General, $2; Jockey Club, $5; Turf Club, $15; general parking, free; preferred parking, $2; valet parking, $5

HIGHLIGHTS: $500,000 Colonial Turf Handicap, June 25; $750,000 Virginia Derby, $200,000 Virginia Oaks, and Grade 3, $200,000 All Along Breeders' Cup Stakes, July 16

Grand Slam of Grass: Any horse that wins all four races will receive a guaranteed $3 million bonus

DateRaceDistanceTrackPurse
June 25Colonial Turf Cup1 1/16mColonial$500,000
July 16Virginia Derby1 1/4mColonial750,000
Aug. 13Secretariat Stakes1 1/4mArlington400,000
Oct. 29Breeders' Cup Turf1 1/2mBelmont2,000,000

*All races on the turf; first three races restricted to 3-year-olds

LOCATION: 10515 Colonial Downs Parkway, New Kent, Va. 23124

PHONE: (804) 966-7223

INTERNET: www.colonialdowns.com