Picasso at Rosecroft?
Fred Weisman, the prospective new owner of Rosecroft and Delmarva racetracks, will certainly lend a new, upscale image to Maryland's moribund harness racing industry when he takes over ownership of the scandal-ridden tracks, probably in early November.
The California business tycoon, variously described to be 78, 79 and 80 years old in news reports, but who wryly said yesterday that "I'm in my 70s, I think," currently has one other Maryland connection.
He is a national trustee on the Board of Directors of the Baltimore Museum of Art, a friend of Maryland's noted art collector (and horse owner) Robert Meyerhoff, and "a fascinating person who throws himself into all his business and art interests with great passion," said Arnold Lehman, director of the BMA.
Lehman said Weisman owns one of the most extensive collections of contemporary art in the country, "everything from the modern masters of the early 20th century like Picasso and Clifford Still straight through to what's current. He is a lender to museums all over the country.
"Fred has been an extremely astute collector for some time and has a terrific eye. I'm delighted he's back in Maryland with a business connection."
Weisman lives in Holmby Hills, Calif., and is a former president and chief operating officer of the Hunt-Wesson Foods Corp. "I was originally president of Hunt Foods and then we acquired such companies as Wesson Oil and Canada Dry and at one time we also had a joint venture with the Avis Car Co.," he said yesterday by phone from his California office.
Weisman retired from Hunt-Wesson, "but retirement can be very boring," he said. In 1970 he took over a small Toyota distributorship in Glen Burnie, moved the offices to the then fledgling town of Columbia and built the distributorship into the largest on the East Coast. It was sold for a reported $100 million last year.
Weisman said a friend and business adviser, Rudolph Lamone, who is dean of the college of business and management at the University of Maryland, "first brought to my attention" that the harness tracks were for sale.
"He thought they would be a good investment," Weisman said.
Weisman has never been a Maryland resident, "although I used to spend a week of every month in Maryland for 20 years during the time I had the [Mid-Atlantic] Toyota distributorship," he said. "But I lived in the Madison Hotel in Washington when I was here."
Weisman has visited Rosecroft twice and admits he has only had a peripheral interest in harness racing. He once owned part of Tanforan and Bay Meadows flat tracks in California, "but that was a long time ago and I was just an investor," he said.
Although Weisman won't have a daily hands-on presence at Rosecroft, "I intend to hire a top-flight management team. I love the environment and the attitude of the people I have met that are connected with harness racing. I want to see the handle increase at every meet, and I want Rosecroft to be recognized as the top track in the game."
Chick Lang, who retired as general manager of Pimlico in 1987, is Weisman's interim president and acting general manager of Colt Enterprises, the Columbia-based firm that will operate Rosecroft and Delmarva.
Lang said plans for Rosecroft include an immediate facelift -- giving the plant "some California pizazz -- aggressive marketing, plans for a shorter season, beefing up Delmarva as a resort track catering to families, attempts to recapture the Baltimore market that was lost when Freestate harness track in Laurel closed, and working with the thoroughbred tracks to initiate off-track betting with the idea of inter-track simulcasting of Rosecroft and Delmarva races at Timonium race course.
"That is the great thing about Mr. Weisman," Lang said. "He has the available funds and the financial stability to put up the money into marketing and promotional programs that will bring out the fans and make it fun. This is the start of big things for Maryland harness racing."
Mark Vogel, the former Rosecroft-Delmarva owner, had placed the tracks into bankruptcy receivership after the collapse last year of his commercial real estate empire. be was also the target of a federal investigation involving his business dealings with Maryland politicians and was charged with possession of cocaine after being stopped by police in Fairfax County, Va., last fall.
A U.S. bankruptcy judge accepted Weisman's offer of $18.5 million for the tracks at court proceedings earlier this week.