Race for Va. track is neck-and-neck No clear leader emerges at hearings

March 20, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

It's a horse race, and no one has taken the lead.

That's about the most appropriate analogy anyone can make right now concerning the decision on which of six groups will receive the license to build a thoroughbred horse-racing track in Virginia.

It is a decision that directly affects everyone in Maryland's horse-racing industry, from fans to horsemen.

If Joe De Francis, owner of the Laurel and Pimlico race courses, is successful in getting the license and builds a track near Dulles Airport in northern Virginia, it creates a racing megalopolis in the Washington-Baltimore corridor and expands the market for Maryland's horse-racing industry. If not, it means the potential for increased competition for a dwindling number of horses from a new competitor and could further dilute the product in Maryland.

The decision the Virginia Racing Commission makes could have almost as much affect on Maryland as the commissioners' home state.

The board's chairman John Shenefieid said he feared there would be "a deadening sameness in the groups' presentations when the Virginia commissioners held site visits and public hearings for the applicants during the past two weeks.

Instead, Shenefieid said -- and the sentiment seemed to be shared by all the board members -- that each applicant and site had its own selling point, cleverly presented by each aspiring operator, and each public hearing had a slightly different feel to it.

Here is a brief rundown of the applicants, sites and major strengths and weaknesses that surfaced during the hearings:

Va. Racing Associates, Portsmouth

Strengths: Virginia ownership, committed financing from various public sources as well as substantial equity raised from local citizens, soild community support

Weaknesses: In-town site is in a high crime, poor urban atmosphere. No support from major Virginia thoroughbred horsemen. Too far for Maryland horses to ship on a daily basis. No access to lucrative Washington market. The group acknowledged its need for Maryland horses by attending a board meeting of the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association last week in an attempt to gain support.

Churchill Downs, Virginia Beach

Strengths: Proven management, strong name recognition, solid financial record, and innovative track design geared to entertainment as well as gambling in resort atmosphere. Strong community backing.

Weaknesses: Offers only 40 days of live-thoroughbred racing. The year-round simulcasting program makes Virginia a satellite rather than live-racing state. Problem getting horses since Maryland is too remote for a daily ship. Site is near a naval air base with continuous, noisy jet traffic.

Laurel/Pimlico, Loudoun County

Strengths: Circuit concept allows Virginia to tap into Maryland system and vice versa. Support from most major Virginia thoroughbred horsemen. Northern Virginia site is close to Md./Va. horse population. Offers 102 days of live-thoroughbred racing in Virginia with $65 million purse structure.

Weaknesses: De Francls must prove that he is not overextendlng himself financially by opening a new track, especially on the heels of the $7.3 million loss last year at Laurel/Pimlico. He has to prove that the regulatory bodies of both states can work together harmoniously. Plan is opposed by many area residents.

Virginia Jockey Club, Haymarket

Strengths: Virginia ownership. From Virginia perspective, offers most live racing (200-thoroughbred days). Northern Virginia site desired by most Virginia thoroughbred horsemen.

Weaknesses: Site is across the road from proposed Disney America project, which could increase northern Virginia traffic gridlock. Widespread citizen protests. Hard to get horses for virtual year-round program. Potential ruinous competition with Maryland circuit.

Arnold Stansley, New Kent County near Richmond

Strengths: Part of circuit concept with Maryland thoroughbred tracks. Support from wealthy Chesapeake Corp., which is developing neighboring tracts with residential properties and golf courses. Could become a compromise location between north and south Virginia.

Weaknesses: Scaled down, more modest facility. Management associated with minor-league tracks like Trinity Meadows in Texas and Toledo Raceway in Ohio. Is far from from Washington market.

Jeffrey Taylor, New Kent County near Richmond

Strengths: Virginia ownership and management. Backing of Chesapeake Corp.

Weaknesses: Charles Town-type of plant. Mixed breed, minor-league racing. Little track management experience.

Shenefield termed the site visits and hearing process "completely successful, if somewhat exhausting."

Shenefield said that in the next two months, before final hearings are held June 6-8, the commission has much work to do -- to hear from financial consultants, state police reports and from making requests for additional informatlon from the applicants so that "we can deal in more detail and sophistication" at the final hearings.

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