Leaving the trusty Rand-McNally on the back seat of the Chumpmobile at O'Hare and setting off on a long driving trip through totally unfamiliar country with only text Mapquest directions to lead the way is an exercise in faith. Sure, the Mapquest directions are pretty correct, but when they say things like "take I-95 south 49 miles to I-695 east to etc etc" there's one little question: Where the heck is I-695? Baltimore? Washington, D.C.? Way more road sign watching required than would normally be desirable on a McChump outing. Bring the map next time, chump.
And here's another thing about those Mapquest directions: Sometimes that computer is downright insane. According to it, to get from Charles Town, WV, to southern Virginia one must go allllll the way back to Baltimore, then south through the ugly traffic of DC, and then get going towards Richmond. Despite never having been in these parts before, a sneaking suspicion that there must be a better way started taking shape during the clubhouse bar interlude at Charles Town. Sure enough, Dave C. and his gang of reprobate racetrack buddies had just the directions for doing so, which ended up as a new set of written directions on a margin of the Charles Town program. And they had some additional advice: "When you get down to the intersection of [x] and [y] in Virginia, you HAVE to stop in at the Sheetz gas station. Cheapest gas and cigarettes in the entire region!" Never had a gas station mentioned as a must see on a vacation before, but what the hey.
Well, they were right on that Sheetz. Full tank of gas, new pack of smokes, and a big cup of coffee: $9.80. Not too shabby. They were right on the directions, too, and the route they'd outlined led through some of the prettiest country ever encountered on a McChump Tour. The Shenandoah River valley is the stuff of songs. So thanks much to the locals for helping make this drive a whale of a lot better than going back over to that miserable I-95 right off like the computer said. Still a spot in the world for a little human judgement.
No problem finding this place. Well except for one minor getting lost incident by Richmond, but that was the fault of inconsiderate highway designers. Nice signs right out on the freeway. The reports that this track is out in the middle of nowhere are certainly correct - it's set in a big expanse of piney woods between Richmond and Williamsburg with no real signs of other human habitation visible in the immediate area. But it isn't too bad a drive from either town, and not much further on past Williamsburg to the Hampton Roads area, so if Colonial can just convince the folks in that part of the country that horse racing is something they ought to be doing, they should be able to build up a decent fan base.
On this particular warm Saturday afternoon, they'd apparently managed to convince quite a few that racing was the thing to be doing, as the parking lot was awfully darn full, and there were a bunch of buses pulling up to the place.
The facade of the plant from the parking lot is quite impressive. All red brick and built to look like a big colonial manor, with four large "chimney" structures, white columns over the entrance, and two large and mostly decorative external structures that resemble guard or valet houses. The place is very pretty, and looks quite impressive and large from the exterior.
Up close, it isn't quite as big as it seems from further off, but there was a nice little Dixieland band twanging away by the entrance to welcome the crowd this particular day, and the $5 to get in wasn't quite as bad as it might seem as it included the parking (which up to that point had been free) and a program which included a free tout sheet called Pete's Pixx, and as the afternoon wore on it became apparent why it was free, as Pete's Pixx stinx. The crowd streaming in was shorts clad, well heeled, and fairly young by racetrack standards, including lots of kids. Quite a few seemingly well-off older couples as well.
The main floor features a big bank of teller windows smack in the middle of things, along with some escalators and elevators up to the clubhouse and turf club (closely watched so as not to let non-payers sneak up and take a look around), a few small concession stands, and banks of TV's scattered all over, along with free chairs, for people to sit and watch simulcasts. The best simulcast areas are in either corner of the front (door front) of the structure, with lots of TV's and windows looking out front to those decorative structures whatever they are. These little corner simulcast areas are actually very nice little secluded spots to sit and enjoy the air conditioning and collect thoughts during the course of the day. One of them was used to present a seminar for new bettors later on in the day. Betting machines, not really enough of them, are scattered about the place in two's and threes. These seemed to have endless problems throughout the course of the day. Nice little gift stand also located toward the front of the main floor featuring reasonable prices.
Up at the front (track front) of the building there's doors on either end leading out to little courtyard patios under the corners of the building, one named the Home Stretch and one named Trotter's Tavern. These provide a bar each, plus betting windows, a few tables, and a spot to be outside but still in the shade. Kinda nice, but pretty packed as it was quite hot out on the apron and folks were grabbing up the shady spots right away.
The apron is a sloped concrete model which is an excellent place from which to watch the races, and there's lots of free plastic chairs for the taking. Which folks did - took them off the apron and back into the shade of the Home Stretch and Trotter's Tavern, so that by the end of the afternoon there wasn't a whole lot of actual seats left on the apron.
Down at the left end of the apron there's a big open space where a few small concession and gewgaw stands are set up, as well as a large tent that seems to be a private party type of tent. Oddly, this area was all covered in green astroturf looking stuff. Howzabout grass, Colonial? Would have made a cool spot to get away from the heat of the concrete. One guy down in this area was selling fresh lemonade, and the yellowjackets were swarming the stand, attracted by the sweet and sticky stuff. The guy just ignored them. The yellowjackets ignored the guy.
The paddock is located down off the right end of the apron, and it's okay and functional, but nothing to shout about. A sign on the paddock gate limits the number of people who can go in to something like two per horse, as it is rather small.
The stands have outdoor grandstand seating down on the front, and enclosed glass clubhouse up behind. Turf Club on the third floor. Stairs to the GS seating from apron, and access to upstairs as described previously. Most of the outdoor grandstand seating seems to be free, as people were coming and going and shifting seats all day long, but that could be an illusion. The actual amount of seating for folks, between what's in on the main floor, out on the apron, and in the main grandstand seats isn't tremendous. The crowd on the day was quite a big one - voucher day or something - and the facility was obviously not really accommodating that many people all that well, as there were lots of folks who had to spend the greater part of the day simply standing or walking around, out on that hot apron. Hardly a spot in the joint to ever sit down and take a load off. A really big huge crowd would tax the capacity of the place to deal with them, even if they did fit in comfortably.
The track out front is truly the star of the place - what a monster! The "inner" turf track laid out on this day was bigger than Arlington's entire turf course, and then there was plenty left over for a good sized outer track as well. Surrounding that monster is an even bigger monster of a dirt course, though not so wide as the turf course. Six furlong races on this dirt track start just before the backstretch goes into the grandstand turn, while 5-1/2f dirt races start actually into the turn. A 1-1/16 mile dirt race is around one turn, with even more room in the back of the chute. This track's a whopper! One complaint with the size of the track comes from horsemen - the barns are behind the backstretch, mostly hidden behind a bunch of trees, so bringing a horse up for a race can involve a walk of almost a mile. Those horsemen are always complaining about something!
The infield is pretty bare except for a couple of ponds. Nothing spectacular. There's a nice little hedge in front of the toteboard that spells out "Colonial Downs" and a nice little flowerbed with a flower heart and a "Virginia is for Lovers" logo inside.
On the all important concessions front, 16oz beers (Crud and Miller Lite) were $3.25 at the inside stands, while some special local fermented products could be bought for a bit more at a small stand out on the apron, and of course the two bars had all sorts of spirits for a price that is unknown to this reporter. Decent selection of food items at the barbecues located out on the apron by the two patio bars, but the prices here were outrageous - $5 for a hamburger, $5.50 Italian sausage, BBQ sandwich $4, and cajun chicken on a stick $4. Even though putting any food product on a stick automatically makes it worth way more money, these prices still seemed way out of line. More reasonable food could be found inside where hot dogs were $2.50 and hamburgers $3, but these were primarily of the heat lamp variety. The $5.50 Italian sausage was quite tasty, however. Lots of grilled peppers and onions accompanying.
Racing on the day consisted of 10 live races, seven of which were contested over the two turf courses. The feature of the day was to be the Daniel Van Clief Stakes for Virginia breds, 1-1/8 miles on the turf for a pot of $30k, but this turned into a two horse match race after six contestants scratched for whatever reason. The big 1/9 favorite, Kerfoot Corner with Edgar Prado up, dispatched his 8/5 rival with relative ease, although the rival did put up a game effort for about 7 furlongs.
Besides that one odd event, the racing consisted of good sized fields of pretty decent horses running for pretty decent purses. Eight $18.5k claimers ran after $12.5k, a big field of $5k maiden claimers contested a $5k purse, full fields of $8.5 clm and clm11500n3l ran for $8.5k, straight maidens and n1x went after $17k and $18k, respectively, and money allowance horses went after $30k. Generally from 8 to 12 horses a race. The most interesting race on the afternoon was easily one of the maiden races, contested at 1-5/8 miles over the outer turf. Some horses were old 0 fer 22 lifetime runners, and some 3yo with but one or two races for their career. Fascinating, fascinating, watching the ebb and flow in a race at a distance like this. Good work, Colonial, carding races at distances. The winner, Beluga, broke his maiden in his 17th start under Edgar Prado.
Most of the horses at the track were down from Maryland, and most of the jockeys, too. Edgar Prado was leading with 17 wins going into the day, with Mario Pino and Mark Johnston hot on his heels. Dale Capuano held a tenuous one win trainer's lead with 5, over a 4-way pile up in 2nd with A. Ferris Allen III, James L. Lawrence II, John J. Lenzini, Sr., and Richard W. Small (plain) all in there at 4 wins.
Despite the crowd, and despite the heat, and despite a 2nd straight day of less than stellar betting, it was a very enjoyable day at a nice, clean, pretty track. A very fun crowd that seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, good if not stellar racing, the spectacle of a match race, the strolling Dixieland band, a female bugler who did quite a job, a track announcer who was efficient but never intrusive, and tasty food and beer even if it was too expensive all made for a very pleasant outing to the track.
On the way out, one last nice little touch - folks who appeared to be Colonial management personnel were holding the doors for the patrons and wishing them a good day and a safe drive.
Thumbs up for Colonial Downs.
The drive on down to Hampton to the new Casa de PhC M from Colonial is also pretty, and historic, too - exits to Yorktown and Jamestown were just two more instances of the "history" that had been making itself obvious ever since the gutless rent-a-Toyota hit Virginia.
And Hampton is a pretty cool little town, too, especially some very tasty seafood places right down by the water with fresh crab and real scallops, and a snappy little downtown with some sort of little music fest going on in a blocked off street, and some gorgeous big old houses right out on the edge of the harbor. More history, too, with the walled and moated fort where Blackbeard's head was stuck on a pike to warn off other pirates, and an old fort in the middle of the harbor that had participated, futilely, in the battle between the Monitor and the Virginia. And what's more during this little tour of the town, PhC M only got lost once while driving, and that while on the grounds of her employer at the Army fort there. Thanks for the hospitality PhC M, and for helping make yet another visit to the mid-Atlantic enjoyable!