Va. voters say no to De Francis

August 03, 1994|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Staff Writer

LEESBURG, Va. -- Loudoun County voters yesterday turned down Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis' proposal to locate a thoroughbred track near Dulles Airport, quashing his bid to launch a Maryland-Virginia racing circuit in the summer of 1996.

With nearly 40 percent of the county's registered voters turning out for a one-issue referendum, the tabulation was 10,399 opposed to the track and 8,622 in favor.

The outcome leaves De Francis with one option in the Virginia picture -- to manage a proposed interstate cooperative in New Kent County for Ohio harness operator Arnold Stansley, one of five remaining interests vying for the first pari-mutuel license from the Virginia Racing Commission.

De Francis said he didn't think he would attempt to reopen the bid of the Old Dominion Jockey Club, the group he has headed. "I'm afraid this is about it."

A last-ditch effort by his interests in the past three weeks failed. An estimated $1 million was spent by the racing interests in the campaign to sway the voters.

Two bus loads of racetrack employees and volunteers were taken to Leesburg yesterday for a final push. Poll workers included Laurel-Pimlico part-owner and general counsel Marty Jacobs and track vice presidents Jim Mango, John Mooney and Tim Capps.

"It ultimately cost us that we were in Richmond fighting the other applicants for six weeks while the opposition had this county all to themselves. That made the difference," said De Francis.

The opposition -- centered in two residential communities on the outskirts of Leesburg -- questioned the financial benefits of the venture and painted an unsavory picture of what racing would bring to the county.

"Overcoming the negatives in any election is very hard," said De Francis. "They used fear very effectively."

De Francis' side was hoping for a large turnout, believing that would narrow the margin the anti-track forces had created.

He got his wish, but it didn't matter.

"That was the one thing we really wanted," he said. "What the vote showed was that the opposition wasn't just centered in two communities. I just wish we had had more time to campaign and counteract the misinformation they used."

The pro-track forces based their argument on the tax benefits to the county, the creation of 3,600 jobs and overall economic development.

De Francis attempted to block this referendum through legal channels but failed. Although Loudoun voters approved pari-mutuel gambling in a 1990 referendum, community groups brought the issue to a second vote by collecting 2,417 signatures on a petition.

Generally, the distribution was along east-west lines, with the western precincts -- where the county's horse industry interests are located -- favoring the track and the more-populous eastern areas opposing it.

De Francis originally planned to build Patriot Park in New Kent County but amended his license application to Loudoun County in January.

The defeat of off-track betting sites in a Northern Virginia referendum and the logistical interests of Maryland horsemen -- who expressed little desire to drive several hundred miles to compete -- affected De Francis' change of site.

That's when the opposition mounted its charge, stressing the unsavory elements a race track might bring.

"I read somewhere during this that in other areas the fear of crime and decay never materialized," said De Francis. "But if people are not sure something new is safe, they will stick with the status quo.

"Fear is a very powerful weapon."

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