Five years after Prince William residents voted to allow parimutuel betting into the county, two separate groups are rushing to win approval for horse racing tracks before the window of opportunity slams shut this fall.

The largely similar proposals--announced within two days of each other--have ignited moral, economic and legal debates in a region with a decade-long, ambivalent relationship with gambling.

"We do not want to turn Prince William County into Las Vegas," said county Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco).

Colonial Downs Inc., which owns Virginia's only racetrack, in New Kent County, recently announced its intention to build a steeplechase track in the small town of Dumfries in eastern Prince William. Shortly after, a group headed by the family of Middleburg businessman James J. Wilson announced its plan for a slightly smaller track at the northernmost tip of the county, near the Loudoun County line.

Virginia voters authorized betting on horse races in a statewide referendum in 1988, and Prince William residents voted to support racetracks in referendums in 1989 and 1994. But each referendum contained a five-year limit, meaning that any project must be approved by November.

Dumfries officials, who have final say on developments within the town borders, are cautiously supporting the Colonial Downs proposal, eager for the money and jobs they hope the new racetrack would bring. Providence Forge-based Colonial Downs says the track will generate about $60 million in wagering annually, although it has not determined how much the town would reap in taxes.

Town officials add that the track would constitute an improvement over the landfill currently on the site.

But county supervisors argue that the track--which proposes only 10 to 20 days of live racing a year vs. simulcast betting seven days a week--is a wolf in sheep's clothing destined to focus far more on gambling than live horse racing.

The county supervisors will have veto power over the Wilson proposal, backed by Equus Gaming Co. and Virginia Turf Club Inc., which promises a small "European-style" turf course compatible with the region around it.

Other attempts to establish betting in Northern Virginia have failed, including in 1996, when Manassas Park voters in a referendum narrowly defeated a proposal by Colonial Downs for an off-track gambling parlor, and in 1994, when Loudoun County turned down a Maryland track owner's attempt to build a track in Ashburn.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), an outspoken opponent of gambling, said a betting parlor--with or without a racetrack--is a slippery slope toward other types of gambling.

"You get corruption," Wolf said. "You get the cannibalization of existing businesses. . . . Then you have addiction problems."

But Michael Vanderpool, the attorney for the Wilson proposal, said voters have twice stated in referendums that they don't see it that way. "I would hope that everybody would respect the electorate's voice in this matter," Vanderpool said.

The debate has been complicated by wrangling over the language in the 1994 referendum and whether voters were giving approval for betting parlors when they voted for a racetrack. The Virginia Racing Commission, which licenses racetracks, said this week that a betting parlor is part of the operation of a racetrack--suggesting that both proposals are well within their rights.

Another twist came this week, when the deadline for racetrack approval came into question. According to the county and the attorney for the Wilson proposal, Prince William Circuit Court mistakenly never issued an order validating the results of the vote, as it was supposed to under state law. The county now has requested that the court issue an order and backdate it by five years, while attorneys for the Wilson proposal argue that the court should extend the deadline by five years until 2004.

If that doesn't happen, time is of the essence. With its complicated zoning process, county Planning Director Rick Lawson said, the county wheels would need to start turning on the Wilson proposal very soon.

"If this thing isn't wrapped up in two weeks," he said, "it's going to be very difficult."