Md., Va. would make great daily double

John Steadman

December 04, 1992|By John Steadman

If Maryland and Virginia can agree to protect their mutual interests while progressing to clean up the pollution of Chesapeake Bay, which they are doing, then certainly they can address the mutuel aspect of something comparatively simple -- staging horse races. The proposal to unite the two states is a winning ticket that deserves to happen.

There are more positive than negative possibilities to the plan. The racing industry is in desperate need, thirsting for new ideas or innovative attempts to create interest that will allow it to fight its way back from ominous declines in attendance and betting handles.

Virginia, under what has been outlined, might look as if it's going to be a "farm team" of Pimlico and Laurel as the sport shuts down in Maryland during the summer and commences a three-month run at a new proposed track almost equidistant from Richmond and Williamsburg.

The name of Colonial Downs, and its logo, is appealing. It ties into the history of Virginia and its love for the horse. Virginians voted four years ago to legalize the sport, even though its citizens have for centuries been involved in breeding and maybe even making a wagering investment on special occasions.

From the Maryland point of view, there is too much racing. A glutted condition exists. The tracks need a rest, as do the players and the horses. Taking the summer off would regenerate interest while still making it possible to keep a hand in the activity via the transmission facilities provided by off-track betting.

Joseph De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, is ready to enter into agreement with a Virginia-based organization, the Chesapeake Corp., to bring about the building of a track in New Kent County, Va., involving 350 acres of available land. Basically, the runners and the horsemen would transfer their game to Virginia for a 90-day period, making it profitable for both states.

Maryland offers the sport for 51 weeks a year. The players get tapped out, like fishermen working the same spots, and to offer a breathing spell might be a help to the overall health and welfare of racing.

"There's a shortage of 'athletes' [meaning horses]," De Francis says, "and it would be in Virginia's best interests if it had a relationship with Maryland. We'd be taking a hiatus and shifting to Virginia."

For De Francis, it's another effort to keep Maryland viable, but he's going to be in a battle with Churchill Downs, which has something similar in mind as it attempts to romance the Virginia market. Taking on Churchill Downs is never easy, but in this instance De Francis, for geographical reasons, has an advantage created by proximity. He also has a supply of horses at Pimlico and Laurel that can be transferred to the Virginia outlet.

Churchill Downs is tied into its own Kentucky circuit and with the horse population falling off, an alliance with Maryland sounds as if it would be a more appealing deal for Virginia. De Francis made a wise public relations move in making it known horsemen and breeders would be asked for suggestions on how the track would be physically structured.

He promises the simulcasting to Maryland would mean few present employees would lose their jobs -- even though a minimal reduction is expected -- because the races would be shown on video screens at both Laurel and Pimlico, plus at the off-track betting venues.

De Francis just got a leg up in Dallas, where the racing commission there granted approval for his involvement in building a track with a group of Texas businessmen. In that tug of war, he won out over interests from Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Tough competition. Now he finds himself entering the ring against Churchill Downs, which will be another battle.

Is he spreading himself too thin? Will it be to the disadvantage of Maryland racing? Those answers will come later. This may not be as easy an undertaking as it sounds. But, for right now, it's the kind of thing that has to be explored.

Virginia is going to need help, especially in having access to horses to stock the programs. To go it alone might mean a disaster similar to what resulted in Alabama, Minnesota and Iowa when interests in those states put toes in the thoroughbred racing waters and found out the hard way they were in way over their heads.

J. Carter Fox, president of the Chesapeake Corp., says he's "overjoyed Joe De Francis will be filing an application for the first Virginia pari-mutuel hoss racing track." That's what he kept saying, hoss instead of horse, and the lilt of his soft southern voice was enchanting. Hopefully, he won't change the enunciation.

As for the future, Maryland and at least part of Virginia are coupled in an entry. They are, for now, off and running, but De Francis has made his own break and most assuredly isn't going to be left in the starting gate.

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