OXON HILL -- Arson was ruled out yesterday as the cause of the three-alarm blaze that destroyed much of the grandstand and forced the cancellation of the evening's racing card Saturday night at Rosecroft Raceway.
Officials of the five-eighths-mile harness track said they hope to resume racing Wednesday night, the next regularly scheduled card.
Peter Piringer, a spokesman for the Prince George's County Fire Department, said the cause of the fire, which started in a storage room in the second floor of the 42-year-old, 3,500-seat structure "looks electrical in nature, although it is still under investigation."
The damage, estimated at more than $1 million, was confined to the back of the grandstand, where flames, said to be as high as 200 to 300 feet, engulfed the area. The fire broke out shortly after 6 p.m., 1 1/2 hours before post time and before most of the crowd, estimated at 4,000, had arrived at the track.
It took approximately 175 firefighters using 50 pieces of equipment to bring the blaze under control by 7:30 p.m. The adjacent, glass-enclosed clubhouse and dining areas were unharmed. There were no injuries to fans, track personnel or horses, although four firefighters suffered minor burns and smoke inhalation.
The fire demolished the second-floor mezzanine betting area, although the seating in the open-air structure, when viewed from the front, was left intact.
"The seats didn't even melt," said Ted Snell, general manager of the facility, which was purchased three weeks ago by Colt Enterprises of Columbia, a firm principally owned by Los Angeles businessman Fred Weisman.
But the structure is unusable and has been cordoned off by officials.
The fire and resulting water damage also destroyed electrical and telephone cables, knocking out electrical service to the nearby barn area and all telephone service to the track. The mutuel managers' office and adjacent Tote room, where computers regulate the pari-mutuel betting systems, also were knocked out.
Telephone service was restored by yesterday afternoon and electricity to the barn area was scheduled to be back in operation by last night.
A temporary pari-mutuels center, hooked up to equipment at the Timonium thoroughbred track, is being installed and will be in use for Wednesday's planned re-opening. The equipment will be tested tomorrow, and no Tote board will be available if Wednesday's card is held.
Chick Lang, the former general manager at Pimlico who is now a consultant to Weisman, said that no decision has been made on what to do with the building.
"That is up to Mr. Weisman and the insurance company," Lang said. "Adjusters have already been on the scene. What we are doing is moving the total operation to the clubhouse. We will operate out of there until our racing season ends Dec. 21 [for a six-week winter break]. Right now, we aren't planning past that date."
Snell estimated it would cost between $4 million and $6 million to rebuild the grandstand. "Or probably more," he said.
Weisman purchased Rosecroft and its companion track, Delmarva Downs near Ocean City, for $18.2 million from financially troubled real estate developer Mark Vogel in early November. During Vogel's ownership, the track had been placed under bankruptcy protection.
"When I called him [Weisman] to tell him about the fire, he was only concerned that there were no injuries to people or horses," Lang said. "He said, 'The rest is just bricks and mortar.' In no way will this slow down all the progress we're planning for this track."
Jerry Connors, Rosecroft's publicity director, said that about 20 percent of the crowd uses the grandstand.
"We have even closed down the grandstand before during the winter season and used just the clubhouse, so we don't foresee any problems," he said.
Heavy fire equipment had been parked on the racing surface in front of the grandstand, but Lang said no damage was done to the racing surface. Horses trained on the strip yesterday.
Danny Murray, a trainer, who had a horse entered in the first race Saturday night, said he had just taken his horse to the paddock when he saw the smoke and flames engulfing the grandstand.
Murray said there were about 45 horses in the paddock at the time, but all of them were evacuated without incident.
Carl Hewes, who trains a three-horse stable, said there was little hardship in the barn area caused by the electrical outage. "But there are about 50 house trailers on the grounds, where many of the trainers and drivers live," he said. "No one had electricity in their trailers."
Officials agreed that they were lucky the fire occurred when it did. "If this had happened when the stands were full of people, it would really have been a tragedy," Lang said.