Redskins to Laurel? Maybe it's time to take Cooke seriously

January 04, 1994|By BILL TANTON

This Laurel Redskins business is getting serious.

I say that not because of the Laurel Redskins caps and T-shirts I saw being purchased yesterday at Carter's Pro Shop on historic Main Street.

I say it because the evidence continues to grow that Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke really is going to build a new stadium for his NFL team hard by Laurel Race Course.

Maybe I should have taken Cooke more seriously when he phoned me at home one evening last month.

He called -- it was the first time we had ever spoken -- to complain about something I had written in that day's Evening Sun. Actually, to complain about something Jim Murray had written about Cooke in his autobiography and I had referred to in my column.

"Let me ask you something," I said after hearing him out. "Do you think you'll be in Laurel in 1996?"

"No, I don't think I'll be in Laurel in 1996," he said. "I know I'll be in Laurel."

So yesterday, the Redskins opened an office on Route 1, an information center for Laurel residents, and over at the racetrack Laurel/Pimlico operator Joe De Francis was holding a news conference that had almost as much to do with football as with racing.

De Francis announced that the Maryland Jockey Club has filed an amendment to its application for a Virginia racing license. Purpose: to build its new Patriot Park track not near Williamsburg, the site it had originally chosen, but in Loudon County in Northern Virginia, three miles from Dulles Airport and a mile from Redskin Park, the football team's practice facility.

The site change bodes well for Maryland. As trainer Katy Voss, a member of the board of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horse Breeders Association, explained it:

"This is the only way the Maryland-Virginia circuit is going to work for Maryland. The original site in New Kent County was so far from Maryland that we'd have had to transplant everybody -- stable hands, assistant trainers, all our employees. That would be terribly expensive and inconvenient. Most of us would have stayed in Maryland, grumbling.

"Loudon County is only an hour from Laurel. We can ship horses there and then ship right back home."

Said De Francis:

"The opening of Patriot Park in Virginia in 1997 would create a powerhouse, year-round racing circuit. We'll have the highest average daily purse distribution of any circuit in the country except for New York and Southern California."

As for the Redskins and their desire to relocate in Laurel, De Francis said he expected to sell Cooke a 55-acre tract of land for his stadium this week.

"We plan to get together this week to finalize that," De Francis said. "I've been busy the last several weeks with other things. Mr. Cooke has been very patient with me."

"Other things," of course, refers to finalizing plans for the Virginia track plus resolution of the Russian roulette agreement between De Francis and partners Tom and Bob Manfuso to settle the Laurel/Pimlico ownership dispute. The outcome of that is to be ++ announced by Jan. 21.

Since De Francis was the one holding the news conference, one would assume he is going to emerge as owner of the tracks.

Also, it's De Francis with whom Cooke has been dealing regarding the purchase of land for his stadium, a transaction that would enrich De Francis and help him buy out the Manfusos.

The presence of the Redskins in Laurel would help the track in other ways, too. It would bring hordes of new people -- potential horseplayers -- to the site, and, as former Sun racing editor Dale Austin, now doing some PR work for the track, pointed out, "If the Redskins play here, people who had never heard of Laurel Race Course would suddenly know where it is."

What about Governor Schaefer's objections to the Redskins' proposed move to Laurel, thereby endangering Baltimore's chances of getting its own NFL team?

De Francis shrugged that off.

"The Maryland Stadium Authority," De Francis said, "has said time and time again that this region can support two football teams. So I don't see what the problem is. We're planning to move forward with the stadium here."

Nothing seems to dim De Francis's optimism about luring the 'Skins to Laurel -- not even the fact that Cooke's plans to relocate in Virginia and, more recently, to remain in D.C. have fallen through.

"I fully expect when the football season kicks off in 1996," De Francis said, gazing out beyond the northern extremity of the race track, "that instead of seeing those trees back there we'll see a new Redskin stadium."

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