06/10/2003 11:00PM

Turf again the focus in seventh year


Turf handicappers, sharpen your pencils. Colonial Downs opens on Friday.

The 30-day meet will offer nearly nonstop turf action, unlike any other track in the U.S except the all-turf Kentucky Downs. Eight of the racetrack's 10 races on opening day will be run on the grass, and 13 of the meet's 14 stakes races, including the $500,000 Virginia Derby and the $200,000 All Along Breeders' Cup, are scheduled for the track's Secretariat course, the widest grass track in the country.

Colonial, located midway between Richmond and Williamsburg in New Kent, Va., is scheduled to run five days a week this year, from Friday to Tuesday. Weekday cards will have a 5 p.m. Eastern first post, while weekend cards will start at 1 p.m. This is the track's seventh racing season.

Last year during a 23-day meet, 92 percent of Colonial's races were held on the turf, up from 81 percent in 2001.

Because turf races typically draw more runners than dirt races, Colonial had one of the largest average field sizes in the country, at 9.29. Average field size for all U.S. racetracks last year was 8.27, according to The Jockey Club.

The highlight of the meet is the Virginia Derby, scheduled for July 12 at 1 1/4 miles on the turf. Senor Swinger, the winner of last Saturday's Grade 3 Jefferson Cup on the turf at Churchill Downs, is being pointed to the race. Additionally, trainer Bobby Frankel has said he is considering entering Peace Rules, the third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby.

Also on July 12, Colonial will hold the All Along, a Grade 3 race for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles on the turf. The $50,000 David L. "Zeke" Ferguson Memorial Stakes for steeplechase horses is also scheduled for the undercard.

The opening weekend will include a pair of $50,000 stakes on the grass. The Punch Line Stakes, a five-furlong sprint, will be held on Saturday, and the John D. Marsh Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-old Virginia-breds, will be held on Sunday.

The meet will be the first in three years in which jockey Mario Pino and trainer A. Ferris Allen are not defending titles. Last year, jockey Horacio Karamanos knocked off Pino, and trainer Hamilton Smith won the title from Allen.