LAUREL -- Joe De Francis met with reporters in his office at Laurel Race Course yesterday and seemed to scoff at the idea he would be willing to give up control of his racetrack, the track that was the cornerstone of his late father's success, for $8 million.
He was reacting to reports that some of his partners, Lou Guida, and the Manfuso brothers -- Tom and Bob-- were somehow ganging up on him and that Guida, specifically, had made an $8 million offer to buy out De Francis' controlling interest in a track estimated to be worth $40 million to $50 million.
"While Mr. Guida is my partner in this business venture," De Francis said, "I want to make it clear to him that I have no interest in selling, and that it's a waste of his time to pursue it any further. We had discussions. I rejected his offer. He is free to make any [additional] offer he wants to, but I don't intend to devote any time to it."
Meanwhile, in Vero Beach, Fla., Guida said his "main interest" is actively pursuing controlling ownership of Laurel. "If I'm wasting my time, he [De Francis] has not said that to me," Guida said. "We're re-evaluating our position and we might make an additional offer. He is free to refuse it. However, it just might be attractive enough for him. Everybody has a price."
Guida added if he took over control of the track, he would "beg" the Manfusos to resume active management roles. The Manfusos, who had been involved in daily racing and plant-related positions, retired about six months ago, although Bob Manfuso is co-chairman of the track's board of directors (with De Francis) and his older brother, Tom, is vice chairman.
For years, Guida was regarded as the late Frank De Francis' silent partner in Laurel's ownership. He is not involved in the ownership of Pimlico. But, apparently, Guida no longer intends to be silent.
Each of the sparring partners has issued dueling press releases since the buyout attempt became public knowledge earlier this week. Guida announced the "non-deal." De Francis restated his "complete" managerial and operational control of Laurel (and Pimlico) and his intent to hold on to control of the tracks, "unequivocally and without reservation," his release said.
Guida is perceived as a man more involved in harness, than thoroughbred, racing. The 57-year-old former Wall Street executive has owned several standardbred champions. He said yesterday that he originally told De Francis that he wanted to sell his interest in Laurel, and buy Rosecroft Raceway, the Prince George's County harness track that recently was placed under bankruptcy protection.
But when De Francis did not buy out his Laurel interests, Guida decided to try to gain control of the entire track.
Guida said he and a group of investors -- personal friends and business associates scattered all around the country -- originally invested in Laurel as limited partners.
Frank De Francis set up the track ownership this way:
Laurel Racing Associates LP is a limited partnership that owns the real property and the assets of the track. The Laurel Guida Group owns 50 percent equity, or half, of the track, in the limited partnership. The other 50 percent is owned by Joe De Francis (as successor to his father), the Manfuso brothers and Marty Jacobs, the track's executive vice president and general counsel.
But a corporation, called Laurel Racing Association Inc., is the general partner in the limited partnership and actually controls the management of the track. There are two classes of stock in the makeup of the controlling corporation -- Class A, or voting stock, and Class B, non-voting stock. De Francis owns a majority of the voting stock, which gives him clear managerial control of Laurel.
Guida said he and his group originally invested in the limited partnership, with no voting rights, "with our eyes open. We invested in a track managed by Frank De Francis and the Manfusos. But they aren't there any more. I hardly know Joe De Francis. In no way is this an attempt to impugn Joe. He is Frank's son. And I have no reason to question his ability. All I know is what I see in the published figures [attendance has dropped about 5 percent since the beginning of the year]."
But, as De Francis pointed out yesterday, these are only slight declines compared to other East Coast tracks.
However, the honeymoon is clearly over for the younger De Francis since he took over management of the tracks after his father's death about a year and a half ago. He has had to deal with the Manfusos' departure from the management team; declining business statistics; failure to get an off-track betting bill passed in the legislature; and now, the challenge of a buyout from his dad's original partners.
Still, the consensus among reporters yesterday is that he is handling this latest situation with a certain aplomb.
"Seldom," De Francis said, "has a non-deal made such news."