At center of crisis in Maryland racing is Joe De Francis


September 08, 1991|By Marty McGee

It is Maryland Million day, and, for many breeders and owners, years of hard work will come to fruition. Anticipation and excitement will rule the day.

Underneath the revelry, however, a sense of quiet desperation pervades Maryland's racing industry.

At the heart of the issues dogging the industry is Joe De Francis, who has taken charge of Pimlico and Laurel race courses, Maryland's two major thoroughbred tracks. De Francis cites "a state of crisis unlike any ever faced before in the racing industry, both on a national and local scale" as the primary reason for the sport's recent slump.

Others, however, question whether De Francis' leadership can help the tracks return to better days. The tracks are suffering a crisis of confidence.

This critical period comes some two years after the death of Joe's father, Frank J. De Francis, often hailed as the tracks' savior. De Francis died in Miami on Aug. 19, 1989, after suffering a heart attack in Puerto Rico two months earlier.

De Francis' partners, Bob and Tom Manfuso, left their day-to-day management positions in June 1990, less than 10 months after Frank De Francis died. Joe De Francis, now 36, had assumed the role as president and chief executive officer of the tracks in early September 1989. The relationship between the Manfusos and Joe De Francis has become frosty at best, and until the management rift becomes settled, the tracks never may match the surge in business that marked its late-1980s revival.

"The cornerstone of your business year is the ability to maximize on your big events," said Bob Manfuso. "We haven't been doing that. We haven't done well at any time. I honestly don't think Maryland racing can get back on the pace we set unless something [in management] changes. It doesn't please me."

In 1991, betting handle and attendance have stagnated. Handle at the Laurel summer meet was down 1.5 percent from corresponding 1990 dates at Pimlico. At the Pimlico spring meet, handle was down 8.4 percent from 1990.

Meanwhile, some fans say they perceive a deterioration in services and facilities.

Some horsemen complain that their concerns are not being addressed as quickly as when Frank De Francis and the `D Manfusos were constantly out and about.

"I've talked with Joe about things we need a dozen times, but he doesn't seem to be listening," said trainer Jerry Robb, a longtime director of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "Frank would listen to you."

The racing program has undergone a subtle but visible decline: Fields have been small, and overnight purses have taken small cuts over the past year.

De Francis and others on his management team point to the myriad problems of the racing industry throughout the nation. They say they are trying their best to help a crippled child walk. They say they cannot, however, make that child run.

Frank De Francis' legacy

Frank De Francis and the Manfusos, along with silent partner Lou Guida, bought Laurel in 1984 and Pimlico in 1986. The years after were undeniably good. Attendance and handle virtually doubled because of many factors, but mostly because of a tax concession from the Maryland Legislature, the introduction of intertrack wagering and breakthrough innovations such as the glitzy Sports Palaces, where serious bettors could enjoy stylish comforts seldom found at racetracks.

Frank De Francis was credited widely as being a master in marketing and politics. He was a highly visible, almost intimidating presence at the tracks, someone acutely aware of what his customers wanted and how to give it to them. With room for improvement at the tracks, he capitalized by winning the tax break -- which reduced the state's take from each betting dollar from 4.09 cents to .5, with the resulting windfall directed to purses and capital improvements -- and by instituting aggressive marketing.

What Frank De Francis accomplished that his son has not is complicated by the variables of time, circumstance and factors beyond control.

Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the horsemen's association, said that, before 1984, "Maryland racing had

nowhere to go but up, but now the crest has been ridden." Wright said racing is a game of peaks and valleys, and Joe De Francis accepted the task of trying to fill his father's shoes just as the industry began to encounter serious problems.

Those problems are not unique to Maryland. The recent recession has compounded the economic woes of racing throughout the country. Breeders are being forced out of the business, unable to turn a profit. Many owners have been thwarted by the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which dramatically lessened the tax advantages in horse ownership.

"I talk to owners all the time that say they've reduced," said trainer Vinnie Blengs. "Used to be one guy had five horses. Now, five guys share one horse."

But those problems don't matter to Maryland horseplayers.

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