The debate over two proposed racetracks in neighboring Prince William County gathered steam this week: While Prince William's state legislators denounced them as gambling parlors masquerading as legitimate businesses, horse breeders and trainers countered that the tracks would help stimulate the rural economy and stem suburban sprawl not only in Prince William but also in Loudoun and Fauquier counties.

James J. Wilson, who breeds and trains horses at his Dresden Farm in Middleburg, wants to build a turf track on 220 acres in Nokesville in southwestern Prince William near the Fauquier line. The track would run races two days a week from April to December.

Colonial Downs Inc., based in Providence Forge, Va., wants to build a mile-long steeplechase track on a private 84-acre landfill in Dumfries, with racing about 20 days a year.

The five-member Virginia Racing Commission has until Nov. 30 to decide whether to grant a license to either operator under a 1994 referendum allowing parimutuel wagering in the county. The Dumfries proposal would have to be approved by the Dumfries Town Council, the Nokesville proposal by the Board of County Supervisors.

Although Prince William's six state legislators have no official part in the decision, they announced their opposition this week on economic and moral grounds, citing telephone calls and letters from county residents opposed to gambling. Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-District 13) called the tracks a "cannibal form of economic development."

He and the other lawmakers contended that proposed simulcast betting at both tracks on nonrace days was not what the referendum voters had in mind. "Now, gambling is the big part and helping the horse breeders is the small part," said Del. Michele B. McQuigg (R-District 51). "This is just totally different from what the people voted on."

But those in the horse industry argued that voters understood the point that opponents are now missing.

"They understand we'll be supporting the horse industry, which is agricultural," said Brian Wilson, whose family company, Virginia Turf Club, has proposed the Nokesville track. "There will be tens of thousands of people indirectly affected by this industry, which will give a huge boost to the local economy."

James Wilson estimated that about $15 million would be spent annually in the local horse industry as breeders and trainers paid to board, feed and keep horses at farms near the track. Joan Belotti, who raises Thoroughbreds on the 65-acre High Rock Farm in Haymarket, said those are farms that otherwise would be developed.

"If we can't run our horses, then we can't make a living at this, and we pick up and move out of state, and the land turns into houses," Belotti said. "A track is going to keep horses in Virginia, but you've got to have a place to run them."

The closest grass racing tracks are in Maryland and Delaware, industry experts say, adding that many of them don't offer enough race days to be profitable. Belotti, who has operated her farm for 22 years, said that paying $45 a day to train a horse that must be shipped three hours to race is too much work for too little profit.

"If I leave this business, that puts the hay man out of business, the feed man, the tack man and at least three employees and a veterinarian," Belotti said. "They'd all have to go, too, and at this rate, we're losing farms daily."

James Wilson estimated that about $1 million of the Nokesville track's estimated $80 million in annual revenue--from wagering, ticket sales and other sources--would go to Prince William County. "It would pay a bond issue on a new high school without raising taxes," Wilson said.

For Kenneth Tomlinson, president of the Middleburg-based National Sporting Library, it isn't much different "than gambling at a 7-Eleven with lottery" and spending the proceeds on schools.

For Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-District 50), the fact that most of the money would be generated on days when there is no racing is "an infringement on the rights of the citizens of Virginia."

The Racing Commission has scheduled hearings on both racetrack proposals next week--at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the A.J. Ferlazzo Building, 15941 Donald Curtis Dr., in Woodbridge on the Dumfries proposal, and at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Best Western Battlefield Inn, 820 Balls Ford Rd., in Manassas on the Nokesville proposal.

Prince William officials said they will not consider the plan until at least January, and it's unclear whether the Dumfries Town Council will vote by the commission's Nov. 30 deadline. Racing Commission Chairwoman Robin Williams said the commission has asked its attorneys to decide whether licenses can be granted without local approval.

Staff writer Maria Glod contributed to this report.