LAUREL -- Virginia has no racetracks, but the state's legislature has approved an off-track betting bill.
The move "has improved our chances of getting a racetrack built," said C. Fred Kohler, president of Virginians for Horse Racing, the group that was instrumental in getting pari-mutuel wagering passed in the state in 1988.
Kohler said that no real group had come forward in the past four years with a concrete plan to build a track.
"But now that we have the OTB feature, we have three groups that are already in the racing business that are exploring the possibilities of building one," Kohler said.
They are Churchill Downs (from Louisville, Ky.), Beulah Park (Grove City, Ohio) and the Ladbroke Racing Corporation from London, which operates such U.S. tracks as Detroit Race Course.
Jeff Gregson, lobbyist for the Virginia Racing Coalition, said, "It is a miracle we got an OTB bill through, considering we don't have a track." The Virginia House of Delegates passed the measure about two weeks ago on a 55-42 vote, and the Senate followed suit Monday afternoon by a 22-17 vote.
The bill stipulates that a track must be built before an operator can open up to six off-track betting parlors. It does not permit the building of tele-theaters simply to simulcast out-of-state races.
"Texas passed pari-mutuel betting in 1987, and they are now just getting racing off the ground," Gregson said. "They had to restructure their original bill. That's what we have had to do. We had to add OTB to make building a track attractive, and now I think we're going to see some action."
Kohler said: "Building a track is still going to be a big undertaking, and there are still plenty of obstacles, such as financing. But now we have an added incentive for investors."
How this will affect Maryland racing is unknown. But Joe DeFrancis, owner of Laurel and Pimlico, said: "This underscores the importance of Maryland passing an OTB bill. If something happens in Virginia, it is either going to complement us or be in competition. I don't want to speculate right now on anything specific, but we're interested in doing some things that would be beneficial to both states. We don't want the kind of blood bath between neighboring states that is now going on in Pennsylvania and New Jersey."
Kohler acknowledged that Timothy Capps, vice president of racing at Laurel, has been in touch with him and Reynolds Cowles, president of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association.
"But I think they [Laurel and Pimlico] are more interested in establishing an OTB circuit with Virginia, maybe with the possibility of building a small track in Norfolk," Kohler said. "I don't know how that would sit with the Virginia breeders. We wanted racing to give our breeders an incentive program and to help a native Virginia industry flourish. I don't think becoming an OTB outlet for Maryland would sit too well with them or our legislature."
* Another good Maryland 3-year-old is leaving the state. The Clover Racing Stable of Pasadena, Calif., has purchased America The Free from the Helmore Racing Partnership and is expected to send him to D. Wayne Lukas to train.
"We will leave him in Maryland for a couple of races and then send him on to Lukas, who has the bulk of our horses," said Barry Irwin, a partner in the Clover operation.
America The Free, currently trained by Carlos Garcia, won the Market St. Stakes at Philadelphia Park in his last start and is scheduled to race next in the Private Terms Stakes at Laurel March 7.
The announcement of the sale followed the purchase earlier this week of stakes-winning Dr. Unright from the locally-based Candy Stable by Saudi Arabian interests.
NOTES: The Senate Finance Committee is still working on an array of amendments expected to be added to the OTB bill, and may not vote on the measure until later this week. . . . Coin Collector, stabled at Charles Town, but who had been shipping in and working brilliantly at Laurel, won his first start of the year Sunday at Garden State Park in the Candy Spots Stakes. . . . Dale Lucas, managing partner of the Helmore Racing Partnerships, said the stable still has a good 3-year-old in its possession named Faster Than Quick. The colt broke his maiden at Philadelphia Park in his last race and is expected to start there next in the Jupiter Stakes. "After that, we might go to the Lafayette Stakes at Keeneland," Lucas said. Garcia also trains Faster Than Quick.