Track operators eye Virginia State association hears sales pitches


WARRENTON, Va. -- Potential operators of a racetrack in Virginia met for the first time in one public forum yesterday at the annual meeting of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association and disagreed sharply on how racing should be conducted in the state.

Five of the six potential operators, who must file an application with the Virginia Racing Commission by Oct. 1 to gain licensing approval, either attended the meeting at the Airlie Conference Center or sent a representative.

At one end of the spectrum is James J. Wilson, a Middleburg, Va., farm owner and president and chief executive officer of Interstate General Company, L.P., a real estate firm that operates El Comandante Race Course in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Wilson and two principal partners, Dr. Joseph Rogers of Leesburg, and J. Fred Kohler, also of Middleburg, have formed the Virginia Jockey Club. They want to build a track in Prince William County in Northern Virginia, operate it year-round and market it aggressively via a daily network television show.

Wilson said that within three years of taking over El Comandante, his company had underwritten a daily three- to four-hour show telecasting the races in Puerto Rico. He said the company has seen annual betting revenues grow from $110 million to $280 million.

"I don't see why the same thing can't be done in Virginia," Wilson said. He added that he planned to buy television time each afternoon to telecast the races in Virginia and that he would locate the track in the northern part of the state "to be close to the breeders and to horsemen shipping in from other states."

At other end of the spectrum is Thomas Meeker, president of Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. He wants to build a track in the tidewater section of the state and have only 40 nights of thoroughbred racing per year, augmented by 60 more dates of racing by other breeds such as standardbreds, steeplechasers and quarter horses.

Meeker said that to be successful, Virginians must tap into the interstate thoroughbred simulcasting market "and to do that, you have to be a sending track with a quality product."

Meeker envisions a short summer meet with a daily purse distribution of between $300,000 to $325,000.

Somewhere in the middle of the candidates is Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis, who announced plans last December to form a joint Maryland-Virginia circuit. He would build a track in New Kent County near Williamsburg on land owned by the Chesapeake Corporation, shut down Maryland racing for three months during the summer and shift the live cards to the Virginia location. The circuit would be linked by an interstate system of off-track betting parlors.

Yesterday, De Francis told the VTA members he has since talked with Maryland harness industry officials and would also add three months of live harness racing.

Meeker disagreed with De Francis' location, which has been called too remote. It is approximately 30 minutes from Richmond and 45 minutes from Hampton Roads.

"It's got to be a multi-purpose facility that can be used on a year-round basis and it's got to be close to a major population center," Meeker said.

De Francis envisions a resort-type track such as Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., or Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., that would attract Williamsburg area tourists.

"By putting the two states together, we'd have a circuit that could generate $840 million a year [in wagering] and offer a daily purse distribution of $275,000," De Francis said.

Meeker said Churchill Downs is "loosely" linked to a group called the Virginia Racing Associates, represented at yesterday's meeting by racing consultant Tom Aronson.

Two other potential track operators in Virginia are Arnold Stansley, vice president of Raceway Park, a harness track in Toledo, Ohio, and Dr. Jeffrey Taylor, a dentist from Covington. Neither were at yesterday's meeting, but Stansley sent a representative. Both have plans that call for a track on the same Chesapeake Corporation property that De Francis would use.

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