NEW KENT COUNTY, Va. -- The Virginia Racing Commission approved an inaugural 30-day thoroughbred meet at Colonial Downs yesterday and at the same time granted Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis a license to operate it.
The decisions were major steps toward the creation of a Maryland-Virginia racing circuit that would mean no live racing at Laurel Park or Pimlico Race Course while thoroughbreds run in southern Virginia.
De Francis would manage thoroughbred racing at the track that is under construction between Richmond and Williamsburg. The meet would run from June 29 to Aug. 15, 1997.
During that time, Maryland thoroughbred tracks would remain open only for simulcasting. The long-range goal, De Francis said, is to re-energize Maryland racing by breaking up the day-in, day-out grind of year-round racing.
A Maryland-Virginia circuit would create three distinct meets, he said: a Pimlico spring meet featuring the Preakness Stakes, an eventual Colonial Downs summer-early fall meet and a Laurel fall-winter meet featuring the Maryland Million.
Although the Maryland-Virginia circuit has been in the works for two years, the incredible success of slot machines at Delaware racetracks makes a cooperative effort between Maryland and Virginia imperative, De Francis said.
In Delaware, bettors have poured more than $1.5 billion into slot machines since they began operating in late December at the state's one thoroughbred and two harness tracks. Profits from the machines have swelled purses for Delaware races, increasing the quality of racing and attracting gamblers from Maryland.
"What's happening in Delaware has underscored the importance making this circuit successful," De Francis said. "The continuation of the status quo in Maryland is not an alternative."
Shutting down live racing would allow the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico and Laurel, to stockpile profits from simulcasting and increase purses the rest of the year, De Francis said. It also would present Maryland trainers, jockeys and horse owners an opportunity to race for purses in Virginia projected to be $150,000 a day.
The Maryland Racing Commission must approve De Francis' plan for cutting back live racing. He said he would propose racing dates for next year at the commission's November meeting.
Alan M. Foreman, lawyer for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, and Richard Hoffberger, its president, said yesterday that nobody yet has seriously contemplated the impact of a Maryland-Virginia circuit. Until racing dates were set and the track was up and running, they said, there was no need to.
Although the basic idea behind the circuit is that Maryland horsemen will compete at Colonial Downs, Foreman said that remains to be seen. Some horsemen have said they won't, and others have said they will, he said.
"There's no consensus on this," Foreman said. "There are a lot of other choices for horsemen in July who don't want to go all the way down to Richmond."
Colonial Downs is about a three-hour drive from Baltimore. Several tracks north of Baltimore, including Delaware Park and New Jersey's Monmouth Park, are closer.
"There are a lot more details in all this that have to be worked out," Foreman said.
De Francis acknowledged that an undetermined number of jobs would be lost temporarily during any shutdown of live racing. Some of those jobs, he said, would be transferable to Virginia.
The question in Virginia is a more straightforward one: Will Colonial Downs be completed in time for a June 29 opening?
As the Virginia Racing Commission met in a nearby courthouse, 21 earthmovers continued clearing the site, situated 25 miles east of Richmond off Interstate 64 at the Route 155 exit. James L. Weinberg, Colonial Downs' lawyer, said the construction schedule is "extremely tight."
Eventually, Colonial Downs is to be part of a massive community of homes, shops, golf courses, amphitheaters and corporate offices.
The track's owners are Jeffrey Jacobs, a financier-developer from Cleveland whose family owns the Indians, and Arnold Stansley, whose expertise is running harness tracks. After Colonial Downs' initial thoroughbred meet next summer, a 50-day harness meet is planned from Sept. 30 to Nov. 26.
De Francis is not an owner of Colonial Downs. His Maryland Jockey Club merely will manage the new track's thoroughbred racing in return for 2 percent of every dollar wagered in Virginia except on live harness racing. One off-track betting parlor in Chesapeake is open. Five more are planned.
Pub Date: 10/17/96