Should pari-mutuel horse racing be allowed in Virginia?

It's a question the Virginia General Assembly asked for six years. Their dicision? Let the people decide.

The people haven't decided yet. They'll get that opportunity Nov. 7, when the question comes up for referendum in the general election.

There are, though, at least four Virginians who have already decided. Two of them in favor, two against, debated the issue last week in Vienna at a meeting of the 10th Congressional District Conservative Caucus.

On 29 persons heard Del Richard Hobson (D-Alex.), chairman of Virginians Opposing Pari-Mutuel Gambling, and Del Robert Thoburn (R-Fairfax), a Presbyterian minister and headmaster of Fairfax Christian School, argue against pari-mutuel beting.

In favor of the issue were Bill Jennings, a Loudon County horse breeder and president of the Virginia Horse Council, and John Marsh, treasurer of Virginians for Horse Racing and former president of the Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

Major points of contention at the debate were the economics and morality of pari-mutuel betting and whether legalized gambling would lead to corruption in the Virginia government.

"My father was an inveterate gambler. I learned from first-hand experience what gambling can do to a person not do to a family," said Thoburn. "Gambling is morally wrong. It encourages the notion that it's a chance universe and it isn't . . . It's a world governed by law. We can actually predict what the returns (from the races) are going to be . . . an 84 percent return. That's loss to the people. Not everybody will win. Some people are going to lose . . .

"There's fear of corruption and not without legitimate reason," he said. Otherwise, he asked, why should the bill limit to two the number of tracks in the state? "When there's big money involved, naturally there's going to be a tendency to become corrupt."

"The restrictions are there," Jennings agreed, restrictions such as "no one person can own more than 10 percent of the stock" in a track. But he claimed they were there to assure that corruption would not exist. "We've never had the taint of corruption in Virginia. If the government of Virginia is going to be corrupted by horse racing, it's going to be corrupted by other things," Jennings concluded.

Hobson disagreed. "When you legalize gambling, you tremendously expand the opportunity for illegal gambling," he said. "Illegal gambling flourishes and expands where there is legal gambling. Corruption is a factor in Virginia. Don't think we're immune from corruption." He cited his "City of Alexandria, where we're trying to handle bingo." Hobson was referring to the indictment of Alexandria Commonwealth Attorney William L. Cowhig on charges of bribery and illegal operation of a bingo game.

"You can attact good, clean, healthy industry (to Virginia)," Hobson said. "The image of gambling does nothing for that image."

Jennings argued that the state could not lose money and would stand to gain a good deal if the referendum is passed and tracks are built. The tracks, according to provisions in the bill, would be privately owned. "If it loses, it doesn't cost the state anything." On the other hand, Jennings said, it is expected that the 5 percent return to the state through taxes, which is outlined in the bill, will add $25 million annually to state revenues.

He claimed that pari-mutuel betting would boost the state economy by $265 million per year from track-generated revenues, the creation of 13,000 jobs, the boost to businesses surrounding the tracks and other factors.

Hobson and Thoburn disagreed with this, saying that relatively little of that money would be from out of state. Therefore there wouldn't be a boost at all - merely a recycling of money.

"What we're not being told," said Thoburn, "is that money's going to be taken from somewhere else . . . groceries, clothes . . .

Hobson argued with Jennings' $25-million estimate, claiming that Kentucky, which has four race tracks, only made a $10 million profit in 1977. "There is no way that Virginia, with two tracks and a similar tax structure, will produce $25 million." A more realistic figure, Hobson said, was $5 million. That sum is "inconsequential in the size of our economy, which is in good shape.

"We should not be asked to sell our governmental souls for pari-mutuel pottage," Hobson concluded.

Marsh disagreed with Hobson's figures concerning Kentucky. Citing a study done by the University of Kentucky, Marsh claimed that the Kentucky Derby, "a one-day event, is worth $70 million to the state of Kentucky."