De Francis considers 3 Virginia sites Applications to build new track due Oct. 1

August 25, 1993|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer

The Maryland Jockey Club has expanded its horizons in Virginia, exploring three sites as possible locations for a new track in the state.

When Pimlico/Laurel operator Joe De Francis announced his intention to form a joint Maryland-Virginia circuit last December, he concentrated his plans on a site between Richmond and Williamsburg in New Kent County, on land owned by the Chesapeake Corporation.

The New Kent County site is still considered the Maryland Jockey Club's principal location. Architectural plans by the HKS firm in Dallas have been drawn up with that site in mind.

But De Francis is also studying options to build a track in Northern Virginia -- near Redskin Park in Loudoun County -- and also in the Tidewater part of the state, within the city limits of Portsmouth.

He said he will select one site by Oct. 1, when a licensing application must be filed with the Virginia Racing Commission. Although the commission is considering amendments which would allow applicants to change locations until Jan. 3, 1994, De Francis still will select an initial site by Oct. 1.

Tomorrow, the Virginia Racing Associates, a group composed mostly of harness racing devotees who were once aligned with Churchill Downs in a Virginia venture, is expected to announce that it has an agreement with the Portsmouth municipal government to build a track there. The site, within the city limits, is on about 260 acres owned by the Bush Construction Co.

It is the same site De Francis has inspected.

Yesterday, Steve Herbert, assistant director of economic development for Portsmouth, told De Francis that even if the VRA reaches an agreement with Portsmouth, the VRA's lack of thoroughbred management is considered a major deficiency, De Francis said. "He said it is essential that they [Portsmouth] have some thoroughbred management, and the door is open to forming a partnership with us," De Francis said.

Bill Miller, president of VRA, said he is aware that De Francis is talking to Portsmouth officials. "I don't blame him. It's a terrific site," Miller said.

De Francis is also talking with Loudoun County officials and has looked at several sites between Leesburg and Dulles International Airport. "The one I'm most interested in is located near Redskin Park," he said. George Barton, chairman of the board of supervisors for Loudoun County, and Terry Holzheimer, director of economic development for the county, are on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

De Francis said there are pros and cons for each of the three sites.

"The Loudoun location is good because it is in the heart of the Virginia horse country," he said. "It is close to Maryland so that our horsemen can ship there easily and we can take advantage of the large Northern Virginia populace. However, the cost of land and infrastructure needed to build a track there is expensive. The decision to locate in Loudoun could depend on )) the ability of the county to be competitive with other areas.

"The city of Portsmouth, for example, has been going after a track for the last 2 1/2 years and the city council is unanimous in its support for a potential licensee."

The New Kent County site, on Interstate 64 between Richmond and Williamsburg, means "we could take advantage of the number of tourists that visit there in the summer," De Francis said. "It is in the middle of the state and its rural, isolated location could help us create the feel of a 'Saratoga of the South.' which is the kind of atmosphere that we are after. On the other hand, it is not as convenient for Maryland-Virginia horsemen, although it is better in that respect than the Tidewater area."

Pluses for Portsmouth include its location in the greater Hampton Roads area, the state's second-most populated region, behind Northern Virginia, and the city's financial incentives to help build and operate a track. But a stable area would have to be built to board horses from Maryland and Northern Virginia.

With about five weeks left until the Oct. 1 deadline, Don Price, executive director of the Virginia Racing Commission, said that he expects to receive applications from all six groups that have expressed interest in building a track.

Each of the groups except the Maryland Jockey Club have settled on a single site:

* Churchill Downs: Virginia Beach.

* Virginia Jockey Club (James J. Wilson): near Gainesville, Prince William County.

* Virginia Racing Associates (harness group): Portsmouth.

* Arnold Stansley (Toledo, Ohio, harness operator): Chesapeake Corp. site in New Kent County.

* Jeffrey Taylor (dentist from Covington, Va.): Chesapeake Corp. site in New Kent County.

Churchill Downs has reached what its consultant, Tom Aronson, describes as "an ironclad agreement with the city of Virginia Beach" to build a track about eight minutes from the resort's downtown area, about 20 miles east of Portsmouth.

The Sports Authority of Hampton Roads will meet Sept. 3 for a final vote on a $17.5 million financing package that it has offered Churchill Downs to help build at the Virginia Beach location, a spokesman said.

Price said the Virginia Racing Commission will meet in Richmond on Sept. 15 to draft policy on amendments. Although initial applications are due Oct. 1, the deadline for submitting amendments, including final financial details, will be Jan. 3, 1994.

Price said the commission should decide who will get the Virginia license "before spring 1994."

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