Stadium foe contends horse owners fear project will ruin Laurel racing

May 16, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

The leader of a group fighting the proposed Washington Redskins stadium in Laurel says that scores of horse owners and breeders are secretly complaining to her organization that the stadium will ruin racing at the Laurel Race Course next door.

But racing industry leaders are skeptical of the claims of Jeanne Mignon, president of Citizens Against The Stadium-II.

"At this point, there is no reason to believe any of the information that is being put out," said Wayne W. Wright, the executive secretary for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

Ms. Mignon told the Maryland Racing Commission Wednesday that there is growing concern among horsemen that the stables that will be torn down for parking lots at the stadium will never be rebuilt on the west side of the track in Howard County, as promised by the Redskins and the track owner.

"I come before you because a number of horsemen have approached this civic group with several concerns regarding the health of the racing industry in the state of Maryland should this stadium become a reality," Ms. Mignon said, reading from a statement.

She asked whether "the sport of kings" will be "destroyed forever by an 18-story edifice next door" to the 82-year-old track.

Ms. Mignon said her organization had received letters from horse owners and breeders, but she did not provide the letters or the names of their authors to the commission. She would not allow The Sun to review the letters or see a list of names.

"Not on your life," she said, explaining that some donated as much as $300 to her organization. "Maybe they will never give me money again."

Racing industry leaders dismissed her claims.

"I would be surprised if she had that many letters," said Joe De Francis, owner of the Laurel and Pimlico tracks. "It seems that CATS is trying to make an issue out of something that does not exist.

"Horsemen have a well-established organization," he added. "Horsemen who have concerns certainly have no hesitation about going before the racing commission. I don't know why they need CATS to talk for them."

Mr. Wright, of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said Ms. Mignon may be hearing from people siding with former minority track owner Bob Manfuso, whom Mr. De Francis bought out in February after a bitter dispute.

He said he was incensed that Ms. Mignon claimed to speak for horsemen, calling her presentation "totally inappropriate" and her position "outrageous."

His group, which represents 2,500 people, has no problem with the stadium proposal as long as the stables are replaced to "the satisfaction of the horsemen," he said.

The Redskins made their stadium plans official this month when they filed their zoning package with Anne Arundel County, seeking permission to build a $160 million, privately funded 78,600-seat football stadium.

Part of the plans call for the existing stables to be torn down and new ones built across railroad tracks in Howard County on 71 acres that is now a track parking lot. The new stables, estimated to cost $15 million, will serve about 1,000 horses. Mr. De Francis said the Redskins are paying for the move.

Mr. De Francis said the existing stables will not be torn down until the new barns are in place and meet with the horse owners' satisfaction. If Howard County does not give the zoning approval needed, Mr. De Francis said, "We're back to the drawing board."

Walter Lynch, the project manager for the Redskins, said the stables "will be built."

But Ms. Mignon asked the racing commissioners if they have studied whether the link between horse racing and football will be good for industry.

She said if the stables do not materialize and racing days are lost while football games are being played, jobs could be lost and the local economy could suffer.

"We've established repeatedly that there is not a guarantee that the stadium will necessarily have a positive benefit, but in this scenario, we know it will have a negative impact," she said.

Richard Wilcke, the executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, which has 1,000 members, said he has heard some rumbling of discontent, but stressed his group has not taken a position on the proposed stadium.

He said horsemen may be afraid to speak out because track owners provide stalls free of charge and can use their availability as leverage against trainers or owners they dislike.

"There are people who are afraid that there are no good alternatives and that the result will be that we have no stables in Laurel," Mr. Wilcke said.

Mr. Wilcke and Mr. De Francis agree that Laurel without stables would not be a viable track because many owners and trainers would bypass it rather than ship in horses from Bowie and Pimlico for every race.

"It would be like having Camden Yards with the locker rooms at Memorial Stadium," Mr. Wilcke said. "It wouldn't work."

C. Oliver Goldsmith, the secretary of the breeders association who said he does not believe a football stadium will help racing at Laurel, also said he has heard concerns about the stables. But he does not believe they are justified.

"I think you have got to take Joe De Francis at his word," Mr. Goldsmith said. "A lot of people apparently don't believe the promise will be kept. If it is not kept, then I think the Maryland Racing Commission must make sure that it is."

John P. McDaniel, the chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, said the regulatory body listened to Ms. Mignon "out of courtesy and interest," and said Ms. Mignon's questions will be answered.

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