With time growing short, Va. track still in trouble

On Horse Racing

September 08, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

This time next year, instead of gearing up for fall racing after Timonium, Maryland horsemen may be settling back home after Virginia'sfirst-ever summer meet.

The owners of Colonial Downs, the track under construction in southern Virginia, have requested racing dates for next year: June 15 to Aug. 23. Laurel and Pimlico would close except for simulcasts those months. Instead, Maryland horsemen would race at Colonial Downs in what's been described as a Saratoga-type meet featuring exquisite turf racing.

At least that's the idea.

The effort to race horses in Virginia and create a Maryland-Virginia circuit has been fraught with problems. And now, with Virginia racing a mere nine months away, problems still carry the day.

Virginia horsemen bicker. An embattled Colonial Downs restructures management. Candidates for Virginia attorney general pledge to outlaw pari-mutuel gambling. Even the simple matter of submitting racing dates falls flat.

"It could very well hinder ever having racing in Virginia," said C.B. "Woodberry" Payne, president of a Virginia horsemen's group, referring to the ongoing troubles. "A lot of people feel if we don't move on now, it'll never happen."

Jeffrey Jacobs, a financier-developer from Cleveland whose father owns the Indians, emerged as leader of Colonial Downs last month after progress had stalled under Arnold Stansley, the original licensee. Stansley obtained the license to build the track in 1994 after teaming with Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club.

The agreement called for the Maryland Jockey Club to help design the track and then manage its thoroughbred racing. Racing in Maryland would cease during that time, creating three distinct meets: a Pimlico spring meeting, a Colonial Downs summer-early fall meeting and a Laurel fall-winter meeting.

"It would be a break from the day-in, day-out grind of Pimlico and Laurel," De Francis said. "Year-round racing gets stale. It generates no new excitement. It attracts no new fans."

Also, De Francis said, Maryland could stockpile profits from simulcast betting during the summer shutdown and increase purses the rest of the year. And Colonial Downs could offer attractive purses -- about $150,000 a day, De Francis said -- from the profits of its year-round off-track betting network.

But when Jacobs submitted next year's racing dates to the Virginia Racing Commission last week, De Francis and others in Maryland were puzzled.

Jacobs' plan calls for a 40-day thoroughbred meet from June 15 to Aug. 23 -- night racing Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, afternoons Sundays. That would be followed by a 50-day harness meet, from Oct. 25 to Jan. 18.

"We think that's just a big mistake," De Francis said of the four-day-a-week schedule and 7: 30 post times. "That's their inexperience showing."

De Francis said he's sure that can be altered to a five-day-a-week afternoon schedule. But other problems may be harder to solve.

The Virginia breeders, trainers and owners continue to battle one another. One of the factions even has gone to court to prevent the Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association from signing a purse contract with Jacobs.

Payne, president of the association, acknowledges that the main problem is that some horsemen still object to the track's location in southern Virginia. They want it farther north. Colonial Downs would be off Interstate 64 about midway between Richmond and Williamsburg.

Don Price, executive secretary of the Virginia Racing Commission, said the owners have cleared about 350 acres of woods and ordered steel for the grandstand. This fall, to finance construction, they'll offer $15 million in public stock and $40 million in bonds.

As decreed by the Virginia legislature, Colonial Downs must open by July 1 or lose the license for six off-track betting parlors and forfeit a $1 million performance bond.

And then, the question is: Will Maryland horsemen want to spend their summers in Virginia, as opposed to, say, slots-rich Delaware Park?

"If Virginia's got the races and the money's there, they'll go," said Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

Cigar tries Woodward

Cigar is on schedule to "redeem our reputation," as his trainer, Bill Mott, put it, in Saturday's $500,000 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park. The race will be on ESPN.

This will be Cigar's first race since losing last month's Pacific Classic at Del Mar. That loss ended the Maryland-bred's historic 16-race win streak.

After that, if all goes well, Cigar will race in the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont and then the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Woodbine, near Toronto.

Then, Cigar's owner, Allen E. Paulson, who said he probably will retire the 6-year-old after the Breeders' Cup, has a decision to make. Japanese breeders have offered $30 million for Cigar.

Pub Date: 9/08/96

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Today's simulcasts

Phila. Park .. .. .. .12: 30 p.m.

Arlington .. .. .. .. .. ..1 p.m.

Belmont .. .. .. .. .. .. .1 p.m.

Calder .. .. .. .. .. .. .1 p.m.

La. Downs .. .. .. .. .. ..1 p.m.

Turfway Park .. .. .. .. ..1 p.m.

Del Mar .. .. .. .. .. .. .4 p.m.

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