A skeptical state Racing Commission today grilled owners of Virginia's only racetrack on their plans to bring horse racing to Northern Virginia, questioning why Colonial Downs should build a second track when its first is failing financially.

Colonial Downs and a competing Middleburg-based business are vying for a single license to build a track in Prince William County--a location that they say would provide a lucrative base in Northern Virginia for the state's fledgling racing business.

The five-member Virginia Racing Commission, which must issue any track license, questioned today whether either operation could be a financial success when horse racing is troubled across the nation.

The Colonial Downs track in New Kent County has lost millions of dollars in its two years of operation, owes back taxes and money to contractors and has suffered from meager attendance. The situation is grim at tracks elsewhere as Americans have taken their betting dollars away from horses and put them into lotteries and slot machines.

"What assurances do we have that you won't run into the same financial difficulties you've already had?" Racing Commission Chairman Robin Williams asked Colonial Downs officials at the daylong hearing.

The two plans--a steeplechase track planned by Colonial Downs in Dumfries and a turf track proposed by the Virginia Turf Club, a subsidiary of Equus Gaming Co., for Nokesville in western Prince William--are the first new facilities proposed since the New Kent County track opened. Virginia voters gave their approval to horse racing 11 years ago, but the sport has been slow to take off.

Now, with the industry struggling to survive in Virginia, there is substantial political opposition to horse racing.

Today, both companies appealed to state officials, saying that a Prince William track is the economic toehold they desperately need. The commission could make a decision as early as Nov. 1.

"Psychologically and prestige-wise, the Washington area is a major league market," said Lawrence Framme, representing the Virginia Turf Club.

The commission is in a troubling bind. Does it allow Colonial Downs, with its poor record, to expand, or award a license to a competitor that could kill off Colonial Downs?

Commission members questioned officials of both companies about their plans to rely heavily on off-track betting. Betting on televised racing beamed in from other states is racing's main source of revenue and has stirred opposition from gambling opponents.

Colonial Downs President Ian M. Stewart told the commission that a Dumfries track would boost company revenue by $60 million, most of it from an off-track betting parlor that would open in 2001. The steeplechase track would not be open until 2003.

Racing officials looked askance at that arrangement.

"What assurance is there that a track will be built?" asked commission member John Bates III, noting that Colonial Downs plans only 20 days of live racing a year in Dumfries. "It appears to me that it's very easy for you to operate a simulcast wagering facility without one," Bates said. Stewart pledged that a track would open.

A handful of track opponents at today's hearing accused the company of exaggerating claims that it would help the area's economy.

"This is being done to save Colonial Downs, not to benefit our community," said John Guernsey, a Woodbridge pastor.

The Virginia Turf Club cast its proposal for 90 days of live racing as the best shot in the arm for the area's horse economy of breeders, jockeys and farmers. The company "has a deeply held feeling for the Virginia horse industry," Framme said.

But racing officials expressed concern that a Nokesville track also might run into trouble, since it would rely on more off-track betting operations than the state is prepared to license.

Rival Racetracks

A look at the competing racetrack proposals seeking approval in Prince William County:

Virginia Turf Club

What: 1A-mile grass course, 2,000-seat grandstand on 220 acres off Route 15 in Nokesville, near Fauquier County line.

Live racing days: 70 in first year, up to 90 in 2003.

Simulcast betting: Year-round.

Projected opening: 2001.

Cost: $20 million.

Who must approve: Virginia Racing Commission and Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

Colonial Downs Inc.

What: One-mile steeplechase track, 2,000-seat grandstand on 85 acres now used as private construction landfill off Interstate 95 and Route 234 in Dumfries.

Live racing days: 20 per year.

Simulcast betting: Year-round opening in 2001, two years before track.

Projected opening: 2003.

Cost: $21 million.

Who must approve: Virginia Racing Commission and Dumfries Town Council.