Two rival groups vying to build the first horse racetrack in Northern Virginia were denounced yesterday by dozens of angry Prince William County residents appearing before the state panel in charge of licensing tracks.
A horse track--and the legalized gambling that would come with it--would contribute to social problems and crime in Prince William, many speakers said. And it would not, said some, provide the economic benefits that operators claim.
"This is not about a racetrack," Prince William Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) told the commission at one of two hearings yesterday, attended by more than 250 residents. "It's about big-time gambling open every day, twelve months a year."
It has been 11 years since Virginia voters authorized betting on race horses, and so far only one track is in operation, run by Colonial Downs Inc. in New Kent County, southeast of Richmond.
Yesterday, the five-member racing panel gathered to consider license applications for a second track, which would be the struggling horse racing industry's first toehold in Northern Virginia. Vying to build a track in Prince William are Colonial Downs, which proposes a steeplechase facility on a commercial landfill in Dumfries off Interstate 95, and the family of Middleburg businessman James J. Wilson, which wants to build a flat track on 220 acres in western Prince William near Nokesville.
Both contenders are racing against time to gain necessary state and local approval. A measure approved by county voters five years ago that allows parimutuel betting expires Nov. 30.
Although county voters have favored legal gambling at the polls, the latest proposals are under attack from a broad range of opponents--from state and local officials to newly formed grass-roots groups led by Christian conservatives and local pastors, as well as residents who fear that horse racing would turn their communities into gambling dens.
"We're not some country rubes," Nokesville resident Ralph Mauller told the commission at the hearing in western Prince William. "We don't need to have the entrenched crime and corruption that follow these racetracks."
Track operators desperately want to be able to allow simulcast wagering, commonly known as off-track betting. Allowing track visitors to bet on events being run elsewhere is the flagging racetrack industry's best hope for economic survival, analysts say. Track attendance is down nationwide as casinos and lotteries grow more popular with gamblers.
Colonial Downs's track in New Kent lost $5.3 million last year.
The Wilson track would offer almost 100 days of live racing a year--a feature that has built support for that track among many local horse owners, who argue that frequent racing would create jobs.
Horses would race at Colonial Downs's Dumfries track just 20 days a year, with simulcast betting open from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day. Track officials revealed yesterday that there would be no live racing in Dumfries until April 2003, two years after the opening of a grandstand allowing simulcast betting.
That would enable the facility to make money, according to company officials. "Wagering is the engine that drives the train, the means by which horsemen can earn a living," Colonial Downs attorney James Weinberg said, adding that concerns about crime and social problems are "myths."
The Wilsons are banking on their offer of more live racing to garner more public support. And they said they would help preserve Nokesville's rural character by feeding the local horse industry, storing horses and staffing barns. Yesterday several local horse owners appeared to support plans for a track in Nokesville.
The commission is the racing groups' first hurdle. The Colonial Downs track also would need approval from the seven-member Dumfries Town Council, which is likely to vote next month. Prince William supervisors would vote on the Nokesville track, although not until early next year. So far, a majority of the county board's eight members have said they oppose it.
In Dumfries, a working-class community of 4,280, officials are weighing local opposition against the racetrack's potential to bring jobs. "The notion of a racetrack would certainly be very attractive to our community," Dumfries Mayor Chris Brown said.