06/14/2006 12:00AM

Turf a specialty for 42 days


Colonial Downs, the Virginia racetrack that is quickly establishing a reputation for competitive turf racing among horsemen and bettors alike, begins a 42-day meet - its longest ever - with a nine-race card on Friday afternoon.

The Friday card is offering up exactly what horseplayers have come to expect from the track: lots of turf racing and lots of horses. Eight of the nine races will be run on Colonial's 180-foot-wide turf course, including the feature, the $26,000 Old Nelson at one mile. The day's average field size is 12.5 horses per race.

Following the lead of many racetracks, Colonial has adopted 10-cent superfectas for this year's meet, which runs until Aug. 12. The track has also added a pick four to its betting menu, linking races 4 through 7.

Though Colonial's racing product was well received last year, with all-sources handle increasing 2 percent, its ontrack numbers dipped considerably, in part because of an expansion of the track's race meet from 34 days to 40 days. Average daily ontrack

handle dropped 14 percent to $170,125, and average ontrack attendance dipped 6 percent to 2,028.

Ian Woolnough, Colonial's general manager, said the track hopes to reverse those trends this year with several special events designed to bring new people into the track, not just horseplayers.

"I've been in this business my whole life, and I used to think horse racing was enough," Woolnough said. "But that entertainment dollar is tough to get."

Colonial will again offer a multimillion-dollar bonus to any horse who can sweep its two $1 million races - the Colonial Turf Cup on June 24 and the Grade 2 Virginia Derby on July 15 - plus the $400,000 Secretariat Stakes on Aug. 12 at Arlington Park and the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs. The Colonial Turf Cup and Virginia Derby will be run with $1 million purses for the first time this year. Last year, the Turf Cup had a purse of $500,000, and the derby had a purse of $750,000.

Colonial's bonus, called the Grand Slam of Grass and first implemented last year, is designed to give the owner of a horse that can win all four races a total of $5 million, counting the purses of the races. So this year, the bonus will be worth at least $2.36 million.

The bonus played a large part in luring quality horses to Colonial last year. The winner of both the Colonial Turf Cup and Virginia Derby, English Channel, has developed into one of the best grass horses in the United States.