De Francis still seeks Va. link

August 06, 1994|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Staff Writer

In the aftermath of the failure of his initiative to build a thoroughbred track in Loudoun County, Va., Joe De Francis maintains that a Maryland-Virginia cooperative is still the best solution for the future welfare of Maryland racing.

De Francis' group was knocked out of the race to land Virginia's first pari-mutuel gambling license earlier this week, when Loudoun voters turned down his proposed Patriot Park track in a referendum.

That left five remaining bidders for the license, which is expected to be awarded by the Virginia Racing Commission on Sept. 28.

In lieu of operating the circuit, the Maryland Jockey Club president said he now hopes he can forge a business relationship with whomever lands the license.

"I still believe a circuit between Maryland and Virginia is the single most important thing we can do to improve the quality of Maryland racing," said De Francis. "To get purses up, draw more horses and raise the overall quality, that is the way to go."

De Francis' best hope for forging into Virginia is now Ohio harness track operator Arnold Stansley, who already has agreed to a swap of simulcasts with Maryland if he wins the license for New Kent County.

If Stansley's bid is not successful, the second most viable alternative may be an agreement with Tom Meeker, president of Churchill Downs, another candidate for the license.

Of the other applicants, only a group led by James Wilson is attempting to locate a track in Northern Virginia, where there would be more direct competition with Maryland. But a deal between Wilson and De Francis seems unlikely, because their dealings during the pre-licensing process were acrimonious at times.

And any other alliance could be difficult because of potential opposition from horsemen and breeders in both states to a far-flung circuit.

"We'll give a strong commitment to try and work with anybody who wants to develop a cooperative," said De Francis. "We'll bend over backwards. The concept of direct competition with a track in Northern Virginia would be suicide for everyone involved."

For now, De Francis said he is "evaluating the options," but it does not appear that he can act with any vigor until the license is awarded.

A track in southern Virginia would pose little threat to attendance and handle at Maryland outlets immediately, but it could attract more horses from this area if its purse distribution were higher.

Although Maryland tracks lost $7.3 million last year, they are projected to show a profit for the first six months of 1994.

2l De Francis answered "unequivocally no" when asked if he had any plans to sell the tracks.

"If I was going to do that," he said, "I would have done it in January [when Hollywood Park management tendered a serious offer]."

More than $1 million was expended by the Maryland group in the failed effort to sway Loudoun voters.

In the end, they decided they preferred high-technology business to racing in the county and apparently were turned off by a vigorous, last-ditch campaign by the track interests.

"They tried to divide East and West, and a lot of people were upset by their tactics," said Steve Whitener, a member of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors who opposed Patriot Park. "There was a backlash."

Voters also questioned the financial benefits to the county from racing.

"The [track] people just didn't have the numbers to support what they said. And their proven record was bad, considering all their debt," said Dale Pullen Myers, a Loudoun County Planning Commission member opposed to the track. "I didn't think this was going to be the savior of our county."

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