De Francis' plan draws criticism from Va. rivals

June 07, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

RICHMOND, Va. -- Competitors of Joe De Francis wasted little time yesterday in attacking the Pimlico/Laurel track owner's plan to create a Maryland-Virginia horse racing circuit run by Marylanders.

"The voters voted for a Virginia racetrack, not for bringing someone in from out-of-state to run racing here," said Peter Drypolcher, a consultant for Virginians, Inc., a group that is proposing to build a track in New Kent County near Richmond. "They didn't vote to create a thoroughbred racing state called 'Marygin.' "

But not all of the criticism was heaped on De Francis. Churchill Downs took its share of the heat, too, being called "an absentee landlord" that wants to make Virginia just "another outpost on its list of gaming enterprises. They even have a riverboat [casino] on the cover of their annual report," said Carrie Camp, spokeswoman for the Virginia Racing Associates, which plans to build a track in Portsmouth.

These comments came yesterday during the opening round of three days of final hearings that will lead to the awarding of the state's first pari-mutuel license by the five-member Virginia Racing Commission by Sept. 20.

The first two applicants to take the stand, the VRA and Virginians, Inc., have strong Virginia roots. Camp said that her group is better equipped to be "the steward of Virginia racing" than the out-of-state groups or another Virginia-based operation, Jim Wilson's Virginia Jockey Club, which "threatens constant warfare with Maryland" by building a plant in the northern part of the state.

Churchill Downs and De Francis, two of the remaining four applicants, are scheduled to testify today, followed by Wilson's Virginia Jockey Club and the Stansley Management group tomorrow.

Camp and her associates outlined a plan that calls for 50 days of live thoroughbred racing to be run during the summer at the Portsmouth track, with an approximate daily purse distribution of $200,000, higher than the purses now being offered at Pimlico and Laurel.

Hal Handel, general manager of Monmouth Park and The Meadowlands race courses in New Jersey and a VRA consultant, said De Francis should give "strong consideration" to ceasing racing for two months in the summer to go to Portsmouth, even though Maryland horsemen have said they don't want to uproot their stables and travel that far out of state. De Francis switched the location of his proposed track to a northern Virginia site partly to appease his horsemen.

"Horsemen say those things," Handel said, "but who knows what they will do for money?"

Handel said a short summer VRA thoroughbred meet would be modeled on a similar short, quality flat meet at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.

But Bill Thomas, De Francis' attorney, challenged that idea, saying: "What has Oaklawn Park done to stimulate a thoroughbred breeding industry in Arkansas? Where does Arkansas rank nationally on the list of leading thoroughbred breeding states? Pretty low."

That thought was also on the mind of Virginia racing commissioner Ernest Oare Jr., who said: "We all want to be like Saratoga or Del Mar or Oaklawn. But is running a 55- or 60-day thoroughbred meet a year enough to make it worthwhile to breed Virginia-breds?"

Handel said thought should be given to paying bonuses to any Virginia-bred that wins a race at any track in the United States.

"It's clear as a bell," Handel said. "The abbreviated meets are entirely consistent with the way the industry is moving and adapting to a horse shortage."

Jeffrey Taylor, whose Virginians, Inc., plans to build a smaller, more modest plant in New Kent, would run two short thoroughbred meets in late fall and early spring and offer cool-weather turf racing.

Taylor also would offer a mixed-breed schedule of quarter horse, Arabian, steeplechase and harness racing during the rest of the year for a schedule of 200 days of annual live racing.

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