Local horse enthusiasts reacted with dismay yesterday to the decision of the Virginia Racing Commission to reject two proposals for racetracks in Prince William County. The votes effectively kill any chance of approving horse racing for Northern Virginia before a referendum allowing parimutuel betting in Prince William expires Nov. 30. [Details on the decision in Metro, Section B.]
"It puts us in a very difficult situation when we look at the future for horse breeding in Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William counties, where small breeders can no longer make it," said Duke Zeller, executive director of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association in Warrenton. "Something has to be done or racing will die in Virginia, along with breeding."
"We need a site in Northern Virginia for the whole industry," said Joan Belotti, who raises thoroughbreds on the 65-acre High Rock Farm in Haymarket. "The betting public is here, and this is where the horses are."
But at local forums, the anti-betting public also was out in force.
"We're elated" by the commission's decision, said William J. Spriggs, a Washington lawyer who represented the Nokesville Preservation Alliance. "We all want to save horse racing in Virginia, but this just wasn't the way to do it." Spriggs said his group was against off-track betting for "moral" reasons and had concerns about increased traffic.
The first proposal, by Colonial Downs Inc. for a steeplechase track in Dumfries, was breathing its last before the commission finished it off. In a 4 to 2 vote on Tuesday, the Dumfries Town Council denied the company a special-use permit to build the $20 million track atop a commercial landfill off Interstate 95.
Despite elected officials' initial enthusiasm for the jobs and spending it would bring to the tiny town, it became clear that the local political climate had turned increasingly hostile to horse racing and its attendant gambling since the referendum passed in 1995.
That left the horse industry with one hope--Middleburg businessman James J. Wilson's proposed flat turf track in rural Nokesville near the Fauquier County line. "We're the only one left standing," Wilson said Monday as he awaited the commission's verdict. "It appears to me that we have a viable track that would be good for the county."
But the commission said that neither Colonial Downs, which has lost money during its two years operating a track in New Kent County, nor Wilson had demonstrated enough financial stability to run a successful racecourse.
"A new racetrack might be convenient for people who race and for fans, but it's not necessarily the solution," said Glenn Petty, executive director of the MD/VA Racing Circuit Inc. "It's like any sport. If there's one baseball stadium that's having trouble getting people to come to games, you don't want to build one more right next door to it, or even within 50 or 100 miles of it."
Horse trainers and owners had hoped that the Fauquier Board of Supervisors would send a strong message of support for Wilson's proposal.
But after an emotional public hearing Monday night--attended by a crowd of more than 200 people, with roughly equal numbers for and against--the supervisors punted. They voted to send copies of the speakers' comments to the Prince William supervisors for their consideration if the racing commission approved the proposal.
Opponents portrayed the Fauquier board's refusal to take a stand as a victory.
"To come here in the heart of horse country and come away with this vote, . . . that's a victory," said Richard Wallace, a lawyer who spoke on behalf of the Nokesville Preservation Alliance.
Wallace's was an assessment that many proponents of the racetrack shared.
"I thought what the board did was a weak, faint-hearted, chicken stance," said Zeller, executive director of the 500-member Virginia Thoroughbred Association. "We can't comprehend why anyone would cut off the hand that feeds you." He estimated that 10 percent of all the jobs in the county are horse-related and said the vote was an act of ingratitude.
Board Chairman Larry L. Weeks (R-Scott) said that the board's inaction was the result of two equally strong arguments and not a slap in the face of the horse industry.
"That is a goofy conclusion to reach, because the horse industry has done well, and we are number one and doing well, without a racetrack," Weeks said. "As a matter of fact, there is strong sentiment within the horsey set that would tell you gambling would not be beneficial to the type of horse business the county enjoys."
As with the Dumfries proposal, supporters of the Nokesville proposal argued that a track would help a horse industry that contributes taxes and jobs to the county while preserving wide swaths of open space in the county.
"We need to race our horses so we can recover some of the investment in our product," said Ronald Kilbourne, a breeder from Dumfries, at the Monday meeting. "I believe the opposition is selective and prejudicial to our sport and our business."
Both tracks failed to win local support for many of the same reasons.
Even as Dumfries Mayor Chris Brown began to woo local officials and constituents, hailing the track as the savior that could pay for a sound barrier along Interstate 95 and clean Quantico Creek, a grass-roots band of Dumfries residents, led by church leaders, was organizing against it.
Staff writer Lisa Rein contributed to this report.
CAPTION: The racing commission rejected Colonial Downs's Dumfries proposal, saying it has lost money operating its track in New Kent County, above.