DeFrancis wants to move Md. summer racing to Va. Plan would create two-state circuit

November 21, 1992|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer Staff writer Jon Morgan contributed to this article.

Maryland racetrack operator Joe De Francis has conceived a plan to link Maryland and Virginia into one horse-racing circuit that would move summer thoroughbred racing from Laurel and Pimlico to a new track near Williamsburg, Va.

Under the plan, racing would be conducted in Maryland nine months of the year. It would adjourn for the summer to a resort-like Virginia track that has been given the working name "Colonial Downs."

The bistate racing system would be linked by an off-track betting network that, Mr. De Francis says, someday would include Washington.

Mr. De Francis, owner of Laurel and Pimlico race courses, said that such a format "could double the current purse structure at Maryland tracks and make a Maryland-Virginia circuit the premier racing center in the country, bypassing New York and Southern California."

He said he has discussed the plan with members of the Maryland Racing Commission and state horsemen and breeders' groups, and has received favorable reaction.

Jack Mosner, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, said he is keeping an open mind.

"I can't see a major negative economic impact on Maryland and . . . if it works, it could be positive for Maryland," Mr. Mosner said.

"It's worth exploring. It would be great if it meant more purses and the people who bred horses would make more money," said J. W. Y. Martin Jr., president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

But state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's Democrat, said he is concerned about the loss of live racing to Maryland racing fans.

"I would not look with favor on any plan that would deprive Maryland citizens the opportunity to enjoy racing at a Maryland track during the racing season," he said.

Mr. De Francis sketched out his plan last week before the board of the association, Mr. Martin said. The board informally endorsed the concept, he said.

Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said his group was briefed by Mr. De Francis last week and "endorsed the concept warmly."

Horse racing needs to modernize itself and solve the growing problem of horse shortages, Mr. Mosner said.

In the long term, the industry might become a regional one, with circuits of tracks cooperating with each other across state borders, he said, and Maryland should position itself to thrive in that new order.

But Mr. Mosner noted that the record of new tracks built in the nation has not been good in recent years, and that Virginia only recently legalized pari-mutuel betting. The results of the first few pari-mutuel steeplechase races in Virginia have been disappointing, he said.

Mr. De Francis said he has discussed the project with Virginia political figures. He said he hopes to make an application with the Virginia Racing Commission soon to build the track.

He said yesterday no specific deals have been made. It is believed his partner in the venture is the Chesapeake Corporation, a Fortune 500 company with extensive real estate holdings in southern Virginia.

He said he plans a news conference in Washington on Dec. 2 to discuss the project in more detail.

Pari-mutuel horse racing was legalized in Virginia in 1988, but no tracks have been built. The state legislature gave approval earlier this year to a supporting system of off-track betting parlors in hopes that it would spur development of a track.

Churchill Downs is Mr. De Francis' main competitor to build a track in southern Virginia. Management of the track in Louisville, Ky., has announced its intentions to build in the Hampton Roads area, which is a short drive from Williamsburg.

Mr. De Francis is working with Maryland's harness tracks to open up an off-track betting network in this state. He is also an adviser to the Lone Star Jockey Club, which recently was awarded the license by the Texas Racing Commission to build a $97 million track in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Mr. Miller said he would be concerned about the ability of Mr. De Francis and his management team to operate tracks in Virginia, Texas and Maryland while also expanding off-track betting.

"It would seem to me that Joe would have his hands full," he said.

De Francis' plan

Highlights of Joe De Francis' plan for racing in Maryland and Virginia:

* Racing would be conducted at Laurel in the fall and winter, at Pimlico in the spring, and at the new Virginia track in the summer.

* Bets would be taken year-round on the circuit at OTB parlors in both states.

* There would be Virginia-bred races at Maryland tracks and Maryland-bred races at Virginia tracks in order to spur development of the sagging horse-breeding industries in both states.

* The Virginia track would be built along Colonial Williamsburg lines. It could offer facilities for other year-round activities, such as steeplechasing, horse shows and equestrian competition, and could be designed as a tourist attraction.

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