NEW KENT – As harrowing as it might be for most businessmen to see their livelihood in flames, J.D. Thomas never flinched in March when he saw Colonial Downs' turf course ablaze.
It's actually something he'd been looking forward to seeing for quite some time.
The irony is that improving the appearance of a turf course requires fire. So, Thomas and Co. transformed the entire 1 1/4-mile turf track from a lush green landscape into a sooty gray mess in a process that took only an hour-and-a-half in March.
"The risk factor of the turf not coming back never ever crossed my mind," Thomas said. "We've been wanting to do it for three years."
Thomas' confidence was rewarded in a week when tiny blades of grass started to emerge from the ashes. When Colonial Downs opened its thoroughbred season Saturday – a season that will run through July 28 – the turf course was near perfection.
"It's denser than I've ever seen it at this time of year," said Thomas, who added the turf burning didn't cost the track anything – the local forestry and fire departments assisted in the process.
The turf course will have its biggest opportunities to shine June 16 in the $500,000 Colonial Turf Cup and July 21 in the $600,000 Virginia Derby, a Grade II race that will go off for a 15th consecutive year. Racing under the lights will bring an entirely new feel to the track.
Racing will take place this season on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with first post times on Thursdays, Friday and Saturdays coming at 7 p.m. First post time on Sundays will be at 12:55 p.m.
"I think we're probably the only track (in the country) that can offer turf racing at night," said Tyler Picklesimer, the director of racing at Colonial Downs. "There may be somebody out there that can run one or two (turf races) at night, but we can run nine or 10 at night. From that perspective, we should hopefully dominate the night time summer circuit."
In order to prepare the track for more night turf racing, Colonial Downs moved 34 of 38 light poles from the outside of the track to the inside. For the turf course to look like it should on television for simulcasts at night, it needs to be backlit, which required the movement of the light poles – a process that cost the track $700,000.
Thomas acknowledges night racing will make for some long days for horsemen from northern Virginia and Maryland, most of whom won't get back home after race days until the wee hours of the morning, but the new night post times could also help horsemen traveling south to avoid beach traffic.
Colonial Downs officials hope night racing can help draw a younger crowd that will enjoy the night time scene, which will be marketed via Colonial Downs television commercials and a new track theme based on a "Better at Night" concept. Night racing could also create a less stressful environment for horses, since they'll no longer have to deal with mid-day Virginia summer heat.
"I think with the amount of turf racing we can offer, and if our field sizes stay up, I really feel like we'll be the strongest night time signal out there this summer," Picklesimer said. "It's an exciting time."
Race days: Thursday, Friday and Saturday with first post time at 7 p.m.; Sunday with first post time at 12:55 p.m.
Admission: $2 general admission; free for kids 12 and under
For additional information, call (804) 966-7223, visit colonialdowns.com or facebook.com/ColonialDownsRacetrack
DATES TO REMEMBER
June 16 – $500,000 Colonial Turf Cup (open to 3-year-olds and up)
July 21 – $600,000 Virginia Derby (Grade II turf race open to 3-year-olds)
July 27 – $250,000 Commonwealth Turf Fest (five stakes races worth $50,000 each and open to Virginia-breds)
July 28 – last day of meet