Arson fire wrecks grandstand at closed Freestate Raceway


The grandstand building at the old Freestate Raceway was heavily damaged yesterday afternoon in a three-alarm arson fire, the state fire marshal's office reported.

A motorist driving past the closed harness track, just east of U.S. 1 in Laurel, noticed heavy smoke and reported the fire about noon, said Bob Thomas, spokesman for the state fire marshal.

Firefighters from Howard and nearby Prince George's counties battled the blaze for an hour before it was declared under control. Most of the wooden grandstand collapsed as flames spread through the building.

A trained dog helped investigators pinpoint the origin of the blaze under the grandstand in the admission ticket counter area and concourse.

Mr. Thomas declined to reveal exactly how the blaze was set, but said it was not done in a sophisticated manner.

Two youths seen running from the area shortly before noon are being sought by the police.

The raceway was closed a year ago after the sale of the property tothe Cafritz Group, a Washington real estate and development firm that had proposed building an office and industrial park on the 107-acre site.

Freestate, originally named Laurel Raceway, was purchased in 1980 by the late Frank J. De Francis from a bank that had foreclosed on the property. Mr. De Francis used that purchase to enter Maryland racing, and went on to revive both harness and thoroughbred racing throughout the state before his death in August 1989 -- shortly before the sale of Freestate to Cafritz.

Mr. De Francis later leased Freestate's racing dates to Prince George's developer Mark Vogel, the owner of the state's other two harness tracks. Mr. Vogel transferred the dates last year to his Rosecroft Raceway in Oxon Hill after lengthy hearings before the racing commission. He has since become embroiled in financial and legal difficulties -- including an arrest on a charge of cocaine possession earlier this month.

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