The family of Middleburg businessman and horse breeder James J. Wilson announced last week that it will seek to build a "European-style" turf course in Prince William County just off Route 15 near the Loudoun County line.
The proposed racecourse, which requires approval from the Virginia Racing Commission and the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, would be the state's second parimutuel track. The facility, which would offer afternoon races each weekend and one weekday, would include a 1 1/2-mile grass course, a 2,000-seat grandstand and a year-round betting parlor for simulcast races.
The proposal, made by Equus Gaming Co. and Virginia Turf Club Inc., is the second in recent days to capture the attention of residents in Prince William and adjacent counties. On Tuesday, Colonial Downs Inc., which owns Virginia's other parimutuel racetrack in New Kent County, announced that it wants to build a steeplechase track and betting parlor in Dumfries.
The proposals come as a 1994 Prince William County referendum allowing tracks and county betting parlors approaches its five-year mark, ending the window of opportunity to build such facilities in Prince William.
The Virginia Racing Commission, which must approve any track, has set a September deadline for applications. Commission officials said they have not received any formal proposals.
Proposed horse-racing tracks have created controversy in Northern Virginia since the state authorized parimutuel wagering on horse races in a 1988 statewide referendum. Since 1992, voters in five jurisdictions--including Loudoun, Fairfax City and Falls Church--have shot down attempts by the horse-racing industry to build betting parlors.
In 1994, Loudoun voters rejected an effort to bring a horse-racing track to the county, eliminating the bid of Maryland track owner Joseph DeFrancis to build one in Ashburn. DeFrancis, owner of Laurel and Pimlico racetracks in Maryland, proposed building the track near Dulles International Airport. Nearby residents objected to the traffic and crime they said it would bring; western residents supported it as a boon to the county's horse industry.
Virginia Racing Commission Chairwoman Robin Williams said the commission could license one, both or neither of the two racetracks that are in the running for Prince William. Because they are both turf tracks, she said, it is unlikely both will be approved.
Both Colonial Downs and Virginia Turf Club officials have stressed that they will work with the community to design tracks that don't overly disrupt nearby neighborhoods.
"We want to keep the size down so as to not overwhelm the experience of being in such a beautiful place," said Brian Wilson, spokesman for the Turf Club.
The Turf Club course, which would be on a 251-acre tract at Routes 15 and 701, would host only daytime races and would not be lit, according to an application for a special-use permit filed July 1 with Prince William officials. Wilson said the track would host about 100 days of live racing each year.
James Wilson, who breeds and raises thoroughbreds at his Dresden Farm in Middleburg, also made an unsuccessful 1994 bid to build a track in Prince William. He runs a successful track in Puerto Rico.
Jeffrey P. Jacobs, Colonial Downs's chief executive, noted that his company's proposed one-mile track would replace a landfill. "You're changing the whole appearance of the front yard of the city of Dumfries," Jacobs said.
Colonial Downs has long considered populous and lucrative Northern Virginia the place to revive an enterprise that has not been as successful as it hoped. Its racetrack in New Kent County lost $5.3 million last year.
The company has signed a letter of intent to purchase 85 acres of privately owned landfill near Interstate 95 and Route 234. For the track to be built, the Dumfries Town Council must approve the project. The facility would not require the approval of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.
Jacobs said the racetrack would likely start with 20 racing days a year.
Even if the commission signs off on one or both of the proposals, the companies undoubtedly will have to overcome some community opposition.
Already, Prince William Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn (R-Gainesville), in whose district the Wilson track would be located, has questioned the area's ability to handle increased traffic.
"It's right in housing area subdivisions," he said. "I wouldn't put a manufacturing site next to residences, so why would I put a racetrack next to residences?"