Maryland's harness racing industry has gone so far down -- and its prospects for revival have suddenly become so promising -- that comparisons to what happened in the thoroughbred industry in Maryland in the late 1980s are being made.
"Frank De Francis showed it could be done with Laurel," said Chick Lang, who will serve as president and general manager of Rosecroft Raceway before a permanent replacement is soon named by new owner Frederick Weisman. "The new group has the money and the wherewithal to do what has to be done."
Business, morale and the quality of racing have all steadily declined since Mark Vogel's financial problems began affecting Rosecroft. The current state of the track, said one insider, "is sorrowful."
"There's been no nice place to go except the dining room," he said. "The marketing program is non-existent. They gave out binoculars at one giveaway that would have been more appropriate as a Pee-wee Herman prop. There are no more big gamblers here.
"I don't know if the damage is irreparable, but this guy better have a lot of money, because that's what it's going to take to turn things around. It's like Frank De Francis used to say: 'The ice isn't melting -- it's cracking.' "
After he bought Laurel Race Course in late 1984, De Francis led the thoroughbred industry back to respectability. Lang said the same will be done for the harness industry.
"It's not that Rosecroft is in terrible physical shape," he said, "but it needs some glitter and leadership. Through a strong CEO, [Weisman] wants to take the existing organization and strengthen it, give it the help it needs. Marketing, promotion and advertising will be at the forefront. He's never done anything halfway. He wants to do this the right way."
Last week, a federal bankruptcy court approved the $18.2 million sale of Rosecroft and Delmarva Downs to Weisman, 78, a Los Angeles philanthropist and highly successful businessman. Weisman, who was named president of Hunt Foods at age 31, has since made his mark in a number of areas, including art, autos and other consumer products.
Weisman will make infrequent trips to Maryland, but his imprint definitely will be felt when his organization assumes control in early November. That, said Lang, "will be a giant step forward."
Maryland-based jockey Andrea Seefeldt recently ended a three-week tour of Japan with other female riders from around the world. "It wasn't fun, but it was a good experience," said Seefeldt.
Of the 20-day tour, the jockeys rode only seven days. Seefeldt said she won two races from 14 mounts and found racing to be quite different.
"The horses are slow, but very well-mannered," she said. "There are no valets, no pony people, no gate crew. There's a 20-minute post parade. They race the wrong way [clockwise].
"One of the tracks was awesome. At one, there were probably 100,000 fans. They even clean the rail between races."
About the food: "The first couple weeks I tried everything, but I just didn't like it and I lost a couple pounds. Then I found McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken and some steak and ended up gaining a few pounds."
The conflict in wagering rules at the heart of a controversy Sept. at Pimlico Race Course is about to be resolved.
If the revision passes through several channels as expected, wagering will remain intact on a stable coupling -- even when part of the entry is a late scratch. The change would be effective around Jan. 1.
In effect, the "Broad Brush rule" will be abolished. The rule was designed to protect bettors who would be stuck with a lesser horse in case its superior entry mate became a late scratch. Although scrapping the rule makes such a scenario a possibility again, the alternative -- scratching the remaining half from all wagering pools -- is probably less desirable.
October will be the busiest of months for Maryland horseplayers. addition to the regular five-day-a-week schedule at the mile tracks, there's the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase on Saturday at Fair Hill, the Oct. 14 Columbus Day program at Laurel Race Course and the Oct. 23 and 30 cards at Marlboro.
# That's 27 programs.
Saturday also marks a historic first for Virginia. Morven Park in Leesburg will be host to the first pari-mutuel meeting in the state.
Racing will be conducted exclusively on grass, a 55-foot electric tote board will be used, and the track will have 60 mutuel windows open. A crowd of about 25,000 is expected, a track spokesperson said.
Also Saturday, Laurel will be host to its 80th birthday party. To celebrate the event, the track will offer special 1911 food prices, an antique car show, an old-fashioned costume photo booth and other novelties. In addition, paying customers will be eligible to win one of 2,000 limited edition prints of the track, circa 1911.