Jason Beem's Thursday Column for Sept. 7, 2023

September 7th, 2023

A good Thursday morning to you all! Saratoga is over, Labor Day is over, and Fall is here!

Well it’s not here in Virginia yet, as it’s supposed to be in the 90s for the next few days, but we’re looking like 85 degrees for Virginia Derby Day on Saturday. The card for this year’s Virginia Derby Day is really excellent including 11 horses in the big $500,000 feature event.

At first glance, I would guess the Chad Brown trainee Program Trading who drew post 11 on the outside. The horse is a perfect 3-for-3, and the big name connections are sure to draw some money. Oh and he’s also already a Grade 1 winner. It’s going to be a fantastic end to what’s been a pretty strong season, so I hope you’ll join us. 

I want to reflect more on this Colonial Downs season, and the five seasons I’ve been here, on Monday’s column. Today I wanted to tell you kind of a wild story from the first Virginia Derby I got to announce back in 2019. I was hired in February of that year to call the races by Jill Byrne as Colonial was getting set to reopen. Funny enough I was offered the Monmouth fill-in gig and the Colonial Downs job within a week of each other. 

That first season back in 2019 we ran nights on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and it was very fun. We had really good crowds almost every night of the season and Saturday nights were just big parties. One Friday night I remember someone pulled the fire alarm and literally everyone who was attending the races was forced to exit the building, so we all sat out there in the muggy heat by the paddock waiting for the go ahead. 

The Virginia Derby that year did retain its Grade 3 status because it had been run in the prior years at Laurel Park as the Commonwealth Derby. We had a decent field that first year, and English Bee who won the race is still campaigning at a pretty high level for trainer Graham Motion who saddled him to victory that night. My strongest memory from that night though wasn’t the race itself, it was something that happened just before the race. 

My booth at Colonial sits at the corner of the press box. It actually jets out just a couple feet from the main body of the grandstand and up on the roof just to my right is kind of an open space atop the roof where all the air conditioning units and stuff are. But from the press box elevator you can essentially walk out on the roof and up to the ledge to watch the race if you were so inclined. Don’t do that though, I’m just trying to paint the picture. 

One of the big highlights of Virginia Derby day that year was that the Governor at the time, Ralph Northam, was going to be on hand to present the trophy for the Virginia Derby. What nobody warned me of however, was that Governor Northam’s protection and teams were going to be atop the roof keeping an eye on things. And by keeping an eye on things, I mean guns out and pointed towards the Governor in case anyone made a false move. 

I conveniently looked out the side window of my booth at about three minutes to post for the Virginia Derby to see one of those agents set up about four feet to my left. I didn’t know he was with the Governor or law enforcement. I just saw a guy on the roof with a big gun and freaked out. I went to the phone and called security, immediately going out of the view from the window. I told them I think there might be a shooter on the roof. Honestly thank goodness the security person I called that night was the head of security because he knew what was happening and told me it’s all good. Imagine if I’d have called just someone downstairs and they heard me reporting there was an active shooter. All hell might have broken loose and the Virginia Derby might not have been run. I can laugh at it now but holy hell was that scary. 

I did my best to calm down as the race got set to run but that was a failed mission. Luckily for me the pace was obscenely slow that night so the call itself was able to go pretty slow. Here’s hoping this year’s edition of the race is much calmer on the roof. Good luck everyone!