The battle to win the license to build Virginia's first pari-mutuel racetrack is developing into quite a spectacle of civic boosterism in the southern part of the state and planned citizen protests in the north.
An all-out effort to win the hearts, souls and votes of the five-member Virginia Racing Commission, which will decide by the end of the summer who gets the license, is matching city against city, region against region and applicant against applicant. And the process involving site visits and public hearings just began last week.
"There is something maniacal about that traffic in northern Virginia," said Lila Smith-Young, a Portsmouth citizen who apparently couldn't understand why anyone would want to build a track north of Richmond. She was speaking Wednesday at the commission's site visit to Portsmouth, where a group called the Virginia Racing Associates plans to build a $65 million track, financed mostly by public funds.
The town's former mayor, James W. Holley III, proudly proclaimed that 71 percent of the citizenry is in favor of a racetrack in Portsmouth, even though it means moving more than a thousand people out of their homes to clear the site.
Portsmouth residents said their city has more water, less noise and none of the traffic gridlock of Virginia Beach, their neighbor 25 miles to the east that also wants a track.
Portsmouth trotted out its two-horse mounted police unit to escort commissioners around town. Not to be outdone, the chief of police in Virginia Beach announced that his 20-horse mounted police unit will be stabled on the grounds of Princess Anne Downs, the track Churchill Downs management proposes to build near the resort city.
When the commissioners visited the Virginia Beach site later in the day, hotel and bank marquees had messages and banners hung across the streets welcoming the board members to town.
Each community passed out buttons. The white ones read: "Welcome to the Winner's Circle -- Portsmouth." Blue buttons were worn by supporters of Princess Anne Downs.
Churchill Downs management arranged for a cheering throng of employees to greet the commissioners when they entered a hotel where details of the project were discussed.
"I don't regard this as a competition with Portsmouth," said Virginia Beach Mayor Mereya Oberndorf. "We just do everything first class here and don't worry about what anyone else does."
Some of the more amusing or startling testimony given during the presentations included:
* Hal Handel's double duty. The New Jersey track executive is also serving as a consultant to the Virginia Racing Associates. Handel said the Portsmouth track will draw horses from Kentucky and Maryland and any "spillover" from New Jersey. Handel not only works for the Virginia outfit, but also is executive vice president and general manager of Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Both tracks will be competing for horses.
* A gaffe made by Churchill Downs president Tom Meeker. After explaining that two Virginia Beach students each won a $2,500 scholarship for thinking up the name "Princess Anne Downs," Meeker didn't know who Princess Anne was. He was helped out by Oberndorf, who explained the name's historical significance.
* The Hampton Roads Sports Authority is pledging financial help for both groups, planning to sell $35 million in bonds to raise money for the Portsmouth track and $15 million for the Virginia Beach track. However, the sports authority's chairman acknowledged that his group's only other major project -- getting a stock car racing track for Hampton Roads -- had failed. "We had everyone's support but NASCAR's," he said.
The racing commissioners are expected to get quite a different reception when they visit proposed track sites tomorrow in northern Virginia.
Residents near Laurel/Pimlico's Loudoun County site are opposed to the track, although it has the blessing of the Loudoun County government. Operator Joe De Francis said that residents are mostly worried that racetrack traffic will disrupt their communities. "But 95 percent of the traffic will be funneled into the track from exits on a planned extension of the Dulles Toll Road that will be built before the track goes up," he said.
In Prince William County, a track proposed by Jim Wilson is located about about a mile from the planned Disney America project. The track and the Disney theme park have irked local residents.
Marylander at Monmouth
Larry Collmus, who grew up in Ellicott City and graduated in 1984 from Mount St. Joseph High School, is the new track announcer at Monmouth Park.
When he was 18, Collmus attended Loyola College for a semester, then dropped out to become backup announcer at the Maryland tracks.
His father, Bob Collmus, operated his own sound company that serviced local tracks, principally Timonium Race Course. "I used go [to] the track with my father, met the folks in the press box and got addicted to racing from there," he said.
Collmus has been track announcer at Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows Race Course in northern California and three years ago moved full-time to Suffolk Downs in Boston.
He will continue to do the announcing at Suffolk Downs in addition to the Monmouth Park job.
Collmus said that even though both of his parents have died, he still gets to Baltimore over the Christmas holidays to visit his sister, Sally LaHart, in Glen Burnie.
"That's when I make my yearly visit to Laurel and play cards with the guys in the press box," he said.
June steeplechase racing
Laurel/Pimlico is expanding its June steeplechase program from eight to 10 races this year, but will be cutting about $13,000 from the jumpers' purse schedule.
There will be four jumping races at Pimlico on June 11-12 and six steeplechases at Laurel on June 19, 25 and 26.
Two jumping races will be carded on each of the five days. However, there is an added stipulation. No horse will be eligible to start unless it has completed a jumping race. There was a problem last year when a number of horses could not finish the course.
Though the jumping races receive only lukewarm attention from the bettors -- they wager about half the amount on a steeplechase that they bet on a flat race -- Laurel/Pimlico general manager John E. Mooney said that the jumping races attract people who don't normally come to the tracks. He added that the sport is indigenous to the Maryland area "and should be promoted."
Local trainer Dale Capuano got off to a slow start this winter at the Oaklawn Park meet in Hot Springs, Ark. But he is making up for lost time. The Capuano-trained Greatsilverfleet won the Essex Handicap at Oaklawn last weekend and is expected to run back in the coming Razorback Handicap against Maryland Horse of the Year Valley Crossing. Greatsilverfleet and Valley Crossing are early nominees to the May 14 Pimlico Special. . . . Howard and Sondra Bender have retired their stakes-winning mare, Green Darlin, and have bred her to 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed. . . . Donnie Miller Jr. flies to Oaklawn Park today to ride Anjiz in the $40,000 Barbizon Streak Stakes.