The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill that could lead to the construction of race tracks featuring parimutuel betting in Northern Virginia and Tidewater.
On the fourth attempt in this decade, the House approved a bill calling for a statewide referendum in November on the horse racing issue. It was the first time a horse racing bill has passed the House in modern times, although similar measures have been approved by the Senate on three occasions.
If the bill is approved by the House today in final form, and by the Senate, as expected, it would go to the governor for his signature. Gov. John N. Dalton has said he favors horse racing.
If the bill survives a statewide referendum, a separate referendum would have to be passed in any locality in which a track is proposed.
Race track operators in the Washington area reacted with a mixture of apprehension and skepticism to prospects of racing in Virgina. "We certainly wouldn't like it," said James A. Callahan, executive secretary of the Maryland Racing Commission.
Attendance and wagering at tracks in the Maryland suburbs and in Charles Town, W. Va., could be hurt, the track operators said. "I don't know how much of our business comes from Virginia but it certainly is a meaningful part of our attendance, said Donald Hudson, vice president of a Charles Town firm that operates two tracks about 15 miles from the Virginia border.
"I wish them a lot of luck, but we're both going to suffer when they get going - if they get going - from a lack of horses," said Alvin A. Karwacki, general manager of Bowie Race Course. He said many of the Washington are tracks are running only five-horse races when they should be offering 12-horse fields. A track in Northern Virginia would further cut into the number of horses running in individual races, he said.
Several track operators also suggested privately that the operating costs of a race course and the high initial costs of building a track may make the Virginia proposal unattractive to investors. "I just see major problems for them," said one track official. "When you consider contruction costs today, plus paying the debt service on a new track, those figures are just going to be astronomical," he said.
The cost of a new track could approach $20 million and require a site of at least 150 acres, Maryland racing officials said. Fairfax County offers only two possible locations, because of the amount of land needed for such a facility, according to Del. Richard L. Saslaw, a real estate broker. He said that the Gunston Hall area off I-95 and the Centreville area were the most logical sites for a track in the county.
Virginia would join 30 other states if the proposal to legalize betting on horse racing succeeds in the legislation and with the voters. Objections to parimutuel betting have always centered on two contentions: that gambling is morally wrong, and that race tracks tend to attract organized crime.
Supporters contend that horse racing is a sport and that race tracks will bring as much as $25 million in tax revenues, provide about 13,000 jobs, and generate millions of dollars in related activities such as tourism.
"Some of you will recall that we heard the same arguments about liquor by the drink a few years ago that we hear about parimutuel betting," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan (R-Fairfax), "That a man will get paid on Friday and spend his paycheck at the track and his family will have to go on welfare. That is utterly absurd.
"Remember, Virginia was settled by Cavaliers and not by Puritans," he said.
Among betting foes yesterday was Majority Leader A.L. Philpott (D-Henry). "All but 18 of you (freshmen) have heard this matter discussed many times in the past," he said yesterday, ". . . take cognizance of what's happening in Virginia today. There is organized crime in Virginia, and gambling is a major part of it. Are you proposing to put more gambling in the state."
Philpott repeated what has become a common theme in the arguments against the bill - corruption of government officials. "We could be in the same position as Illinois or Maryland - having one of our governors sitting over there in the penitentiary," Philpott said.
The House vote yesterday was 53 to 42.
The horse racing bill contains detailed provisions aimed at meeting objections raised in previous attempts to pass it. One of the major differences between the current bill and the 1976 version is that the 1978 bill calls for privately owned tracks, rather than the public ownership proposed earlier.
The 1978 measure would set up a five-member independent racing commission, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. The commission has been one source of criticism as opponents have said that a gubernatorial appointee could serve as long as a year before the legislature would have a chance to remove or approve him or her.
The bill requires that 75 percent of the stock owned in race tracks be owned by Virginians, and that no family group or individual can own more than 10 percent of the stock. Every employe connected with racing, from the owners to the stableboys, would have to be fingerprinted. Members of racing commission or their families would not be allowed to make contributions to state or local political candidates, nor would they be allowed to hold any financial interest in a track.
No more than two tracks (a commission that studied racing suggested locating tracks in the Tidewater area and Northern Virginia) would be allowed under the bill.
The racing commission would have the power, including the power of subpoena, to investigate possible wrong-doing at race tracks. Opponents of the bill say that additional state police investigators would be needed to handle horse-racing inquiries, and that new laws to allow wiretapping, to establish a statewide grand jury, and to permit the granting of immunity in exchange for evidence would have to be enacted.
Supporters say these changes have been requested by state police in any case, whether horse racing is legalized or not.
Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-fairfax) has already set public hearings for the bill for next Wednesday and said he expects the Senate tto pass it.