Colonial Downs announced yesterday that it hopes to build a steeplechase track in Prince William County, a move that would create the second parimutuel horse racing track in the state and the only one in Northern Virginia.

Colonial Downs Holdings Inc. signed a letter of intent yesterday to purchase 85 acres of privately owned landfill near the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 234 in the town of Dumfries. The $20 million, one-mile track would bring in about $12 million in gross annual income for the company, according to Jeffrey P. Jacobs, Colonial Downs's chief executive. The track also would generate an estimated $60 million in annual wagering through a combination of betting on on-track races and on races held at other tracks.

The prospect of parimutuel wagering, the standard betting format for horse races, has stirred controversy before in Northern Virginia, where five jurisdictions since 1992 have shot down at the ballot box attempts by the horse racing industry to build betting parlors.

In 1996, the citizens of Manassas Park--with the support of U.S. Rep Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and the local chapter of the Christian Coalition--narrowly defeated an attempt by Colonial Downs to build an off-track betting parlor in the city.

But Prince William voters approved off-track betting in 1994. An attempt to build a track in Haymarket was rejected that year by the Virginia Racing Commission.

Jacobs said his company has been discussing the proposed site with Dumfries Mayor Chris Brown for about three months. Brown said he and Town Manager Mike Riley are "excited" about the possibility, which they hope will boost the small town's economy by creating jobs and relieving some of the citizens' tax burden.

Brown added that he and the Town Council, which has not yet voted on the venture, will proceed "carefully" to make sure that any citizens' concerns are considered. Brown said he hopes to get a written proposal from Colonial Downs within the month. For the track to be built, the Town Council must approve changes to its zoning ordinance. The facility would not require the approval of the Board of County Supervisors.

Yesterday, Jacobs said the racetrack would likely start with 20 racing days a year and would also offer simulcast wagering in which people could better on other races going on "all around the world." He touted the approximately 200 jobs the racetrack would create and noted that the track would change the appearance of Dumfries by taking the place of the landfill.

"You're changing the whole appearance of the front yard of the city of Dumfries," Jacobs said.

But David R. Williams, president of the Prince William and Manassas Christian Coalition, said yesterday that, although he had not heard about the proposed track, he felt certain that community members would rally against it. He said it would attract bars and those not interested in "family entertainment. I believe that gambling is against our community standards, if we were to take a poll."

Jacobs said the company, which owns Virginia's other racetrack, in New Kent County, hopes to file an application with the Virginia Racing Commission next month.