Colonial Downs moves ahead with renovations, hiring staff
By Ashley Luck
Colonial Downs is moving full steam ahead on renovating the facility and hiring staff ahead of Rosie’s Gaming Emporium opening in April and the return of live thoroughbred horse racing in August.
The Rosie’s at the New Kent facility is projected to open April 18 and the Colonial Downs group will have 400 employees for all of their facilities by the end of April, with facilities opening this year in Hampton, Richmond, Chesapeake and Vinton, according to Colonial Downs spokesman Mark Hubbard.
Horse racing will return to Virginia Aug. 8 at the Colonial Downs racetrack, with the stables and practice area opening July 25.
The group is also working on off-track betting parlors in Richmond, Vinton, Hampton and Chesapeake and has invested $150 million in all the facilities so far.
The group expects to hire 800 people by the end of the year, with the majority of employees working at the racetrack, according to Peninsula Pacific Entertainment and Colonial Downs Group chief operating officer Aaron Gomes.
Renovations at Colonial Downs are well underway, according to Gomes.
The Rosie’s at Colonial Downs is being transformed into an industrial, modern style off-track betting parlor envisioned by project interior designer Heather Robinson of Within Interior Design.
Concrete is laid for a large path from the sidewalk to the new front entrance, which is still being constructed and will feature two large concrete columns holding up an overhead tent feature, leading to the front doors.
On the first floor, drywall is up, carpet is down and a few industrial lighting pieces and large exposed pipework painted “Rosie’s red” stand out against the black ceilings.
In Rosie’s Kitchen, the facility’s first floor restaurant, workers are painting and installing kitchen equipment.
Rosie’s will feature 600 historical horse racing machines — slot-like machines used to bet on previously contested races — as well as a gift shop and the restaurant.
The machines should arrive in the next 30 days, according to Gomes.
The entire 126,506-square-foot facility will feature industrial-modern style decor with feminine and historic motifs and touches, Robinson said during a September construction tour.
The facility’s turf and dirt tracks will be resurfaced with base dirt and cushion materials, according to senior vice president and general manager of Colonial Downs John Marshall. Track renovations will begin in April and will use more than 20,000 tons of materials.
“The dirt base for the track has to be rolled and compressed a certain way, as well as have a certain height or pitch at straightaways and turns,” he said. “The dirt base was chosen because it will work great with the Virginia climate for the dirt track.”
The turf course is Bermuda grass, which is dormant now, but will grow out to a lush, green grass in spring, according to Marshall.
“We hear it over and over again that it’s the best turf course in the country,” Marshall said. “It’s 180 feet wide and one and a quarter mile long.”
Colonial Downs held a career fair at the New Kent facility on Feb. 14 and 500 people attended, according to Gomes.
“We got a larger response than we anticipated. We offered 54 people jobs on the spot that day,” he said.
Marshall said they continue to contact candidates from the job fair; another fair is set for March 14, according to Marshall.
The group hopes to hire 800 employees for all locations by the end of the year, according to Gomes.
When the facility was taken over by former group Revolutionary Racing last year, now the Colonial Downs Group, there were six employees maintaining the track after it closed in 2014, when former owner Jeffrey Jacobs surrendered his operating license.
“Those six people have found new jobs with us,” Marshall said.
More than 80 people have been hired so far — many of them locals — including Vice President of Racing Operations Jill Byrne.
Byrne previously worked for the Breeders’ Cup, broadcasting the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and as a horse commentator on TVG, a horse racing and betting television network, according to Marshall.
There will be 15 live race days when racing returns on Aug. 8, including the Virginia Derby on Aug. 31, according to Marshall.
The group expects the purse amounts to be $500,000 per race, according to Marshall.
“The quality of racing depends on the amount of purse money,” he said. “It creates a standard of racing and helps horses increase their racing value.”
The purse amount was originally $400,000 per race when Marshall spoke with the Virginia Horsemen’s Protective and Benevolent Association, the state’s thoroughbred horse breeders and trainers group.
“They had been saving up their purse revenue and putting it aside since the track has been closed. They got the purse money from wagering at the four existing off track betting parlors in Virginia and from wagering on the computer as Virginia residents.”
The association has been using and investing the money at races in Maryland during the past few years, Gomes added.
“They said they found some more and wanted to increase it,” Marshall said. “Now we are bringing that money back to benefit the Virginia horse racing and breeding industry.”
Marshall said the group hopes to raise the purse in 2020 and beyond to $600,000 per race.
There will also be stakes races allowing horses the chance to earn credentials, blue ribbons and black type status — a horse that has won in a certain category group race, according to Marshall.
Morning training and the 1,000 stalls at the track will open for horsemen on July 25. The group expects its stakes conditions and race schedule to go out in late March.
Marshall said the group has gotten enthusiasm and interest from horsemen who hope to race at the track.
The four other off-track betting parlors — in Richmond, Vinton, Hampton and Chesapeake — are slated to open this year: Vinton in April, Richmond in June, Hampton in September and Chesapeake in late 2019.
The group will also take over management of the four existing off-track betting parlors in the state: Breakers Sports Grille in Henrico, Ponies & Pints in Richmond, Buckets Bar & Grill in Chesterfield and The Windmill OTB Sports Grill in Collinsville.
Marshall said the group will take over managing the sites April 1, except for Buckets Bar & Grill in Chesterfield, as they need a special permit to be the new owners.
Colonial Downs expects to invest a total of $300 million into all of its facilities by the end of the year, according to spokesman Hubbard.
“We’ve said for months that we are going to bring live horse racing and the horse industry back to Virginia,” Hubbard said. “We got a lot of support from localities and the general assembly. We are delivering on what we promised to do.”
New Kent County economic development director Matthew Smolnik echoed that thought, saying the Colonial Downs group has done exactly what they said they were going to do.
“I have attended the groundbreaking ceremonies for their satellite facilities in Richmond, Vinton and most recently in Hampton,” Smolnik said. “Wherever I travel, the local community and their leadership echo my words as we are all looking forward to a long lasting partnership with the Colonial Downs group.”
“Once they open their doors this spring I am confident that our existing businesses will benefit from the increased number of visitors coming to the county,” he said.