Jul 13, 2023 - Sports

Horse racing returns to Colonial Downs with weekend dates

The return of weekend horse races. Image: Courtesy of Colonial Downs

Weekend thoroughbred horse racing is back in Virginia starting this week and running through September at Colonial Downs in New Kent.

Driving the news: Churchill Downs Inc. — the parent company of the famed Kentucky Derby — bought the Colonial Downs track last year and announced that races would move to weekends for the 2023 season.

  • Plus, in December, the group — and Gov. Glenn Youngkin — announced that three big-deal horse races will move to the New Kent track this season, all taking place on Aug. 12.

Why it matters: Thoroughbred horse racing has a distinguished history in Virginia, from hosting the first big race on American soil (in the 1700s near Williamsburg) to being the birthplace of Triple Crown winner and celebrity horse Secretariat just outside Richmond in Caroline County.

  • But if you wanted to watch a thoroughbred race in person in recent years, Monday through Wednesday at 1:30pm were your only options.

Details: For the 2023 season, which starts today, live thoroughbred races will take place every Thursday through Saturday at 1:30pm at Colonial Downs.

  • Attendees will find all new grab-and-go food options (hot dogs, burgers, cotton candy and lemonade) and a full service restaurant, plus wine, beer and, yes, mint juleps.
  • A rotation of kid-friendly activities, like face painting, bounce houses and a petting zoo, will happen on Saturdays, plus giveaway days on select Fridays (save the date for plush horses on July 28).
  • Parking and general admission is free. Reserved seating starts at $5.

Yes, but: The return of weekend races — and the addition of the high stakes races — comes as the sport is under scrutiny for a surge in horse deaths, between 328 and 900 last year alone (depending on whose stats you use), ESPN reported.

  • Colonial Downs' horse death rate is "good based on industry standards," a spokesperson for the track tells Axios — four horse deaths in the last five years.
  • The other side: The horses probably say otherwise.

Still, the move to weekend races in New Kent was controversial, the Times-Dispatch reported last year — not because of horse safety — but because of increased competition for online and TV horse watching.

Zoom in: Churchill Downs made the move to weekends to increase in-person attendance, per the Times-Dispatch.

  • Last season, Colonial Downs saw an average in-person attendance of 1,700 spectators and 5,000 for the big-deal Virginia Derby. In 2011, when the Derby was in the evening, it drew twice that number.

Worth noting: Dismal live attendance last season had little impact on betting — $74.9 million was wagered on Colonial Downs races, a 29% daily average increase from the previous year, Virginia Business reported.


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