Md., Ky. rivals present visions for Va. racing

June 08, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

RICHMOND, Va. -- Maryland and Kentucky horse racing track owners presented far different visions yesterday in the second and final round of hearings to determine which of six contenders will be awarded a license to open a Virginia track.

Laurel/Pimlico race courses owner Joe De Francis proposed a year-round Maryland-Virginia horse racing circuit with 102 days of thoroughbred racing, off-track betting parlors in both states and a new $55 million facility. The combined circuit would pump new life into the Maryland industry, De Francis said, giving horsemen in both states an annual $60 million purse.

The Northern Virginia track, which would operate in the daytime from mid-June to mid-October, would be in the horse country of Loudoun County and would be home to two signature Maryland events, the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash and the International Turf Festival, both now run at Laurel.

Officials with Churchill Downs of Louisville, Ky., proposed a shorter thoroughbred meet -- 45 days -- and two abbreviated harness meets. They also would operate a network of simulcasting outlets throughout the state. A Churchill-owned track -- named Princess Anne Downs -- would offer night racing from mid-July through August, cost $47.2 million to build and would be in a key Virginia tourist magnet -- Virginia Beach.

"The 30-to-60 day meets are the answer," said William S. Farish III, chairman of the board of Churchill Downs, who likened his site to a summer resort track in Deauville, France, which, he added, is also "by the sea."

The Maryland and Kentucky competitors took eight hours yesterday in the Virginia Racing Commission's fact-finding hearings. Today is the last of the three-day final hearings. The commission is to award the license by Sept. 20.

The final two applicants, Jim Wilson's Virginia Jockey Club and the Stansley Management group, appear today.

On Monday presentations were made by Virginia Racing Associates, which wants to build a track in Portsmouth, and Virginians, Inc., which proposes a track near Richmond.

During his four-hour presentation, De Francis was questioned by the commissioners concerning his $7.3 million in track losses last year and "the scowls on the faces of Maryland track employees, fans and horsemen. That's all I hear," said commissioner Ernest Oare Jr.

De Francis issued figures showing that Pimlico/Laurel has generated higher cash flows during the past five years than Churchill Downs and said that his tracks currently have $9.6 million in the bank. De Francis' chief financial officer, Jim Peterson, testified that the Maryland tracks are showing a profit after the first five months of this year "and will have a sound and profitable 1994."

Observers expecting a heated exchange between the De Francis and Churchill Downs officials yesterday were disappointed. De Francis and Tom Meeker, president and chief operating officer of Churchill Downs, seemed to take pains to avoid conflict.

De Francis said he regarded Meeker and his wife, Carol, as "personal friends, although I was peeved when Tom said in a recent newspaper article that my Virginia plan is dumb."

Meeker said he and De Francis are business partners in presenting two thirds of the Triple Crown races. Meeker added that if Churchill Downs is awarded the Virginia license, De Francis will negotiate a combined Maryland-Virginia circuit with the Kentucky track, which is home to the Kentucky Derby.

De Francis said such a move would be "highly unlikely since Maryland horsemen have repeatedly said they don't want to ship 400 miles to run at night in the southern part of Virginia."

He added that he would be forced to close Maryland stables during the summer in the face of such competition from Virginia.

Scott Cairns, a Churchill Downs attorney, challenged De Francis' package for financing his Virginia track, citing De Francis' lack of equity commitment and high Maryland debt service on Pimlico/Laurel.

Under the financial plan submitted to the Virginia commission by De Francis, the Maryland Jockey Club would put up $500,000 in equity and finance the rest of the $55 million Virginia track by selling high-yield bonds through the Legg-Mason investment company. Peterson said it is possible that all three tracks -- Pimlico, Laurel and the one proposed for Loudoun -- could be combined "under the same equity package and taken public."

Churchill Downs is putting up $9 million of its own money and is raising the rest needed to finance Princess Anne Downs by securing a $20 million loan from NationsBank, selling $15 million in bonds through the Hampton Roads Sports Authority and obtaining the rest from private Virginia investors.

Five residents of areas near De Francis' proposed Loudoun site spoke against the track yesterday during the 20-minute public comment period. They cited an increase in crime, traffic and other problems that might be associated with the track.

Virginia's state Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this week on whether a proposed Aug. 2 referendum on pari-mutuel wagering in Loudon County may be held. It is being proposed by track foes.

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