Thundering hooves and crowds greet reopening at Colonial Downs

Staff writer

As the announcer’s staccato voice rang out across Colonial Downs Thursday, hundreds of spectators and bettors watched as the horses rounded the final turn in the first race of the day.

The pounding of hooves on turf grew louder and the announcer’s voice shriller as the pack neared the finish line.

Thursday’s race was more than just the first of the day; it was the first at Colonial Downs in nearly five years and marked a new beginning for horse racing in New Kent County.

Back on the track, CharmnCharlie Ray and Conquest Falcon battled from the middle of the tight pack, pulling just ahead of the other horses in the race. It was a photo-finish, and the announcer urged gamblers in the crowd to keep their tickets.

Folks who’d placed a bet on either horse waited for the announcer, who less than a minute later said Charmn Charlie Ray had won; the crowd cheered.

The horse’s owner, Vince Tucciarone of Philadelphia, grinned as he stood in the winner’s circle. His horse and jockey, Mychel Sanchez, towered above him. Tucciarone still had five other horses that hadn’t raced yet.

For Robert Lee, a Hanover native, it was a loss. He said he’d trusted his money on the track’s favorites: Partisan Divide and Conquest Falcon. Lee didn’t say how much he’d bet on the horses.

Race tracks in Virginia are Lee’s home-turf — betting on horses throughout the region has been a family tradition since he was 8-years-old.

Now 60 years later, Lee has returned to his home track to bet on horses like he did with his family all those years ago.

Lee is a long-odds bettor. The greater the potential payout, he said, the more likely he is to bet on the horse.

He thought when the track closed in 2014 that it was the end of horse racing in Virginia. Now, he said he’s happy it’s back and he’s going to bring his two grandsons to continue the family tradition.

While Lee seeks a big payout, Teresa Hodges, of Gloucester, said she showed up out of curiosity. A former patron of Colonial Downs, Hodges said she came back to see the changes the track’s new owner, Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, has made.

“It’s something fun to do and a good way to support the community,” Hodges said.

The track does just that, according to New Kent County Administrator Rodney Hathaway.

“We’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” Hathaway said as he walked through the winner’s circle toward the lush-green inner track.

The track’s owners have kept their promises to the community: They’ve increased tax revenue and boosted the local economy overall as more people head to the races, Hathaway said. “(Colonial Downs’ owners) have exceeded our expectations.”

The company reimbursed the county for the nine sheriff’s office deputies over two shifts on hand at opening day, according to New Kent Sheriff Joe McLaughlin. Additionally, Colonial Downs paid to have three ambulances at the racing facility with seven fire and EMS staff on hand, according to New Kent Fire Department Deputy Chief Brian Bennett. Two people were transported by medics to local hospitals by 7:20 p.m., according to Bennett.

Colonial Downs first opened in 1997 and featured live thoroughbred racing until October 2014, according to a news release from Peninsula Pacific Entertainment. The previous owner gave up its Virginia Racing Commission license after disputes with the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protection Association, according to Tidewater Review archives.

A division of Peninsula Pacific Entertainment purchased Colonial Downs in April 2019, according to the release. There are two tracks at the facility: a turf track that’s 1.25 miles long and a dirt track that’s 1 mile long.

The business operates more than 1,450 historic horse racing machines at Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums in New Kent, Richmond and Vinton. In addition, the company owns seven off-track betting locations throughout the state.The horse betting machines allow gamblers to bet 20 cents to $15 on more than 90,000 previous races.

The machines, visually similar to electronic slot machines with slick overlays, hide the names of the horses and the location and date. The bettor chooses a horse predicting how it will finish.The reopening of Colonial Downs was made possible by the 2018 Virginia General Assembly decision to authorize the use of historic horse betting machines.

The company earned about $10.8 million in commissions from its historic horse racing machines and off-track-betting locations before taxes and payments to the racing industry in July, according to the company’s July 2019 revenue report.

An estimated 3,200 people attended the opening day, and nearly $1.7 million was bet on the races at the track across the country. Of that, about $132,000 was bet at Colonial Downs, according to preliminary figures provided by Mark Hubbard, a spokesman for Colonial Downs.

But at the end of the day, not everyone can be a big winner. Some folks went home with fatter wallets, others weren’t so lucky. Williamsburg resident Whit Otey bet about $30, and won just one race.

Otey bet on Beale Street in race four, a young horse with not much of a record, according to the official program.

“This horse was dead last and he ended up coming in first,” Otey said. “You pay for the experience. You can go to Busch Gardens and spend $70 and none of it matters, but here you come for the races and the people and hope to win some money.”

Want to go?

Racing begins at 5 p.m. every Thursday, Friday and Saturday until Sept. 17. The track and Rosie’s close at 2 a.m.

Rosie’s Gaming Emporium and Colonial Downs is at 10515 Colonial Downs Parkway in New Kent.

For more information, visit colonialdowns.com.

Steve Roberts Jr, srobertsjr@vagazette.com, 757-604-1329, @SPRobertsJr.

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