From pulpits across Virginia, the word came down yesterday that betting on horse racing is "damaging."
"There are far more progressive ways for the state to raise money than exploiting the weakness of gambling people," said the Rev. Dr. Emmett W. Cooke, pastor of Pace Memorial United Methodist Church in Richmond.
From paddocks across Virginia, the word yesterday was that horse people in the state have nothing to hide and that a "yes" vote to legalize parimutuel wagering will only make a nice horse-raising state like Virginia so much nicer.
"The majority of the people seem to think those of us in the horse business are the lowest people to come down the road," said William H. Ballenger, 69, the manager of Blue Ridge Farm, a thoroughbred breeding farm near Middleburg in Virginia's wealthiest horse country.
"But that's not true," said Ballenger, whose farm with six thoroughbred stallions charges up to $10,000 for stud fees. "The finest people I ever met are in the horse business."
To prove just how fine the horse business is in Virginia, 16 breeding farms scattered across the state opened their stable doors yesterday to the public.
The man who came up with the idea of an open house to promote the Nov. 7 referendum for legalizing horse race betting said yesterday it was just a coincidence that hundreds of preachers in Virginia chose yesterday's church sermon to ask their congregations to vote "no" on the referendum.
"If we wanted to interfere with the churches' message we would have held our open house in the morning," said Ed Stevens, owner of Rocketts Mill Farm, a 317-acre breeding farm north of Richmond where several hundred people showed up yesterday.
"Instead, we did if after church," said Stevens. "We wanted people to come take a look at us. We have nothing to hide."
With the referendum fast approaching, both proponents and opponents of legalized horse race betting are stepping up their campaigns to influence public opinion. Radio advertising and mass mailings will come this week from both sides.
Public support for pari-mutuel betting, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch poll published yesterday, has faded slightly in the past month, with 48 percent of those surveyed favoring it and 38 percent opposed. In a September poll by the newspaper, horse track betting was favored 54 to 33 percent.
Horse farm owners invited the public out yesterday to pastures and woods resplendent in the colors of late fall to dispel claims that people who associate with betting are seedy and ridden with corruption.
At Blue Ridge Farm, a 575-acre spread across a road from the electronically guarded estate of millionaire pual Mellon, the impression given was from seedy.
Thoroughbred colts played together in pastures bordered by white wood fences White barns were scrubbed clean. The heat was turned on in the horses' water troughs.
"We want the public to see that behind the horse business are a lot of people who earn their living," said Gordon Grayson, part owner of the farm, which has 15 full-time employes.
Breeders claim that the proposed pari-mutuel betting law, with its plan to give half a percent of race track proceeds to Virginia horse breeders, will encourage small breeders in the state who have suffered because of legalized horse race betting in other states.
"There is no incentive now for people to breed their horses in Virginia except that it is a nice place to raise a horse," said Stevens at Rocketts Mill Farm.
Besides reviving the once-famous breeding industry in Virginia, proponents of the referendum, organized as Virginians for Horse Racing, claim race track wagering will bring 13,000 new jobs to the state and $25 million in tax revenues.
Opponents, organized as Virginians Opposing Pari-Mutual Gambling, claim horse race betting will bring organzied crime into the state and benefit only an elite few.
Churches, which represent the strength of the anti-horse betting forces, attack the basic idea of gambling.
This month in Bethlehem Baptist church in Fairfax City, the Rev. Ben W. Sanders devoted his sermon to the evils of gambling. "What it does is bring a great deal of heartache into the lives of the men and women who get in the habit of gambling," Sanders said.
Under the pari-mutuel betting law, voters in any locality where private investors want to build a track would have to apporve it in a separate vote. The populous Tidewater area and Northern Virginia are considered the most likely locations for horse tracks.
The proposal would also permit up to 14 days of pari-mutuel horse racing at county fairs and local steeplechase races.