Track licensing appeal in Virginia to be heard

January 21, 1995|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

The Virginia Racing Commission lost its bid yesterday to prevent state courts from hearing a lawsuit that challenged the board's decision last fall to award a pari-mutuel license to Ohio track operator Arnold Stansley.

But even though Stansley and the commission now could face a lengthy court battle, Stansley vowed yesterday that he will not be deterred from building the proposed $40 million facility near Richmond that is scheduled to operate in conjunction with Laurel and Pimlico racecourses.

A Richmond circuit court judge cleared the way for Jim Wilson, a disgruntled losing applicant in the bid to gain the license, to continue with his appeal of the decision.

The board had sought to have Wilson's lawsuit dismissed, arguing it had not been filed in a timely fashion. But Judge Randall Johnson disagreed, saying that the state's horse racing statute was vague and did not spell out the appeals process in detail. He ruled that Wilson's case should be heard on its merits.

A long court battle is expected to ensue and could harm Stansley's financing package for the track, which is located in New Kent County, about halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg.

Stansley had planned to raise the money to pay for the bulk of track construction by selling nearly $30 million worth of bonds through the New Kent County Sports and Recreation Authority.

"If the appeal goes beyond a year, then I won't be able to raise the money by selling bonds," Stansley said. "But that's not going to stop me. My partner [Ohio builder Jim Leadbetter] and I have our own money and bank money.

"We would have loved to raise the capital locally, but if we can't, I can go to Ohio and get the money from the bank with the snap of a finger. I told my own lawyer I don't want to hear him say that the financing is going to stop. We're on schedule now [in starting construction] and we're going to stay on schedule.

"In April and May, when it comes time to order the steel and construction reaches the point of no return, then Jim and I have the wherewithal to keep on going, even if it means I have to sign my name on the dotted line."

Commission attorney Steve Gravely said he will ask the court to move expeditiously in setting a date to hear the Wilson suit.

However, Larry Framme III, counsel for Wilson, said that it is going to be a time-consuming task.

"There is a huge record to be addressed, about a 10-foot high stack of documents and that is going to take the court some time to get through," Framme said. "It took the commission a year to arrive at the wrong decision. I hope the court takes its time and arrives at the right one."

Although Stansley believes he can raise the track financing even during a tedious appeal process, others express skepticism, including commission chairman John Shenefield, who has said that Wilson's suit could prevent the track from being built and that Wilson should be urged to drop it.

"Give me a break," Framme said. "There has been a provision for appeal in the statute ever since the first racing law was passed. They [the commission] knew someone would appeal [their decision]. To somehow act shocked now is ridiculous. We feel strongly that their decision was wrong, as do a lot of Virginia and Maryland horsemen. We'll take it from here."

Stansley said yesterday that not only is he not going to let the appeal process hinder construction of the track, but he will also "find a way" to open a series of off-track betting parlors in the state before the track is finished.

"Believe me, we can do it," he said. He added that he has also decided to recognize two horsemen's groups, the Virginia division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and the Cloverleaf harness horsemen's organization, to represent thoroughbred and harness horsemen, respectively, in dealings with his track.

"I am a horsemen and I am going to split everything 50-50 with them from Day 1," he said. "Everyone is going to see that we are good people and that plans for this track will come together."

Gravely and Framme are expected to meet with Judge Johnson next week to try to set a briefing schedule that ultimately leads to the judge setting a hearing date.

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