Horsemen like idea, but are wary


Marylanders connected with the state's horse racing industry expressed skepticism yesterday that the Washington Redskins will build a stadium at Laurel Race Course, one calling the scheme "pie in the sky."

But at the same time, many feel if it does happen, it could be a plus for the state's horse racing industry.

Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke is involved in what have been characterized as "serious" negotiations with Laurel/Pimlico operator Joe De Francis to buy 55 acres of land adjacent to the track and build a "Meadowlands South" complex, integrating the racing plant with a new 78,600-seat stadium.

"As a concept, it seems creative," said John McDaniel, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission. "I know The Meadowlands operation [in East Rutherford, N.J., which includes NFL, NBA and NHL facilities as well as a racetrack] and packaging a sports center there has worked well. Doing something like that here would certainly expose more people to racing."

But another commissioner, Jack Mosner, said: "I'll believe it when I see it. I have no confidence in the people in the NFL. They propose deals like this and then use them as threats to get what they want somewhere else. I don't think it will ever happen."

Through a spokeswoman, Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly said Cooke is using the Laurel proposal as "a ploy" to get the kind of deal he wants in the District.

Bob Manfuso, De Francis' minority partner in Laurel/Pimlico, said yesterday "I don't know enough about it. But my gut instinct is that it's a lot of crap."

Manfuso and his older brother, Tom, are involved in a bitter ownership dispute with De Francis over who will control the tracks and have resigned from Laurel/Pimlico's board of directors. De Francis could be using the Cooke scheme to try to lure investors to help him buy out the Manfusos' shares, which they have offered to sell him for $8.2 million.

But, a source close to the negotiations said it was Cooke, 81, who approached De Francis. De Francis is talking to several potential investors and apparently is close to striking a deal to buy out the Manfusos.

Creation of the complex could help the racing industry in a number of ways. The cash Cooke pays for the stadium property would go to reducing the $40 million loan the tracks have with First National Bank.

Infrastructure improvements, such as building new access roads, would improve existing conditions in the area and the publicity involved in a Redskins move could turn out to be a huge draw for the track.

"I don't see any negatives to it," said Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. Those sentiments were echoed by Alan Foreman, attorney for the MTHA, who called the plans "pie in the sky."

But, added Phil Capuano, an MTHA director, "I don't see how it's possible to get it done. The governor wants a team in Baltimore and this would kill all chances of that happening. This will never go through. But then, I also said that Clinton would never be elected."

Although the engineering design of the proposed complex is still being analyzed, one plan is to tear down the stable area at Laurel, which is now between the stadium site and the track, and move the barns and dormitories for stable employees to the west side of the track, which is now allocated for parking.

That idea doesn't appeal to Jim Ryan, the racing philanthropist who is spearheading the Laurel "Quality of Life" program, which plans to start building new dormitories on the site of the proposed stadium in February.

"I think it's a terrific idea to create this kind of Meadowlands complex," Ryan said. "Something like this is done and we have a good chance of getting the Breeders' Cup in Maryland. But they are going to have to build the stadium around the dormitories. We already have a commitment for three acres of that land for the new dorms and have received a federal grant to fund construction."

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