RICHMOND, Va. -- Vowing "not to be a victim and to kick and scream until the end," a new organization of disgruntled Northern Virginia horsemen has emerged to try to derail plans of the Stansley Management Group, and its partner, the Maryland Jockey Club, to build and operate a track in New Kent County in the southeastern part of the state.
Members of the Virginia Horsemen's Association clashed with members of the state's racing commission in Richmond yesterday, telling the panel that Northern Virginia is "the only location" that will support a track and that there is little enthusiasm from Maryland and West Virginia as well as Northern Virginia horsemen to race their animals in New Kent.
The major gripe: The track is too far away.
"We are afraid that this beautiful track will be built and that in a couple of years it will fail," said Donna Rogers, president of the group that claims 700 members. "Most likely, this is going to be Virginia's first and only chance to have a racetrack, and our very livelihoods depend on its success."
Rogers said that the VHA surveyed licensed owners and trainers in Maryland and West Virginia, and only "two of 300 responses expressed support for the track. Many Maryland horsemen say they will race instead in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York or New Jersey." More than 2,100 questionnaires were mailed out.
After a heated, yearlong hearing process among six applicants, the commission awarded the license last fall to Stansley and Maryland track operator Joe De Francis, who pledged to shut down live racing at Laurel/Pimlico during the summer and have Maryland horses race in Virginia.
The rise of the VHA is concurrent with an appeal filed by Jim Wilson's Virginia Jockey Club, which lost its bid to win approval from the commission to build a track in Northern Virginia. Wilson's group is trying to overturn the board's decision. A Richmond circuit court judge will conduct a hearing on the matter May 8.
De Francis said yesterday that "there are many good people in this group [the VHA]. But they are being manipulated and misled by the Virginia Jockey Club. It's a blatant litigation ploy."
Virginia commissioner Ernie Oare also took the group to task, saying that the decision to build the track in New Kent is "a fait accompli" and that unity among Virginia's horsemen is necessary to make it succeed.
"I know where you come from," Oare told Rogers. "Most of you are my best friends and locating a track in Northern Virginia was my first choice. But that's not what we have. We need a system of racing, not just a racetrack. You need to look at the big picture and at what makes economic sense, not 'what's good for me' and that you want a track located 10 minutes from the [Middleburg] Training Center."