De Francis riding high with Texas win Pimlico-Laurel operator sees benefits for Maryland

October 05, 1992|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer

A racetrack elevator operator now jokingly calls the president of Pimlico Race Course "J. R." De Francis.

The vice president of racing wears his cowboy hat to work.

Track officials address each other as "pardner" and talk about "dusting off" their spurs.

It's all good fun, but the repercussions could be large since a new tie has been forged between Maryland and Texas racing.

The eyes of Texas have been on the sport here, and apparently, despite what seem a myriad of doom and gloom problems locally, they liked what they saw.

It's been three days since a group affiliated with Pimlico-Laurel track operator Joe De Francis was awarded a license by the Texas Racing Commission to build a $97 million track in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

It was a hotly contested, well-publicized, bi-coastal fight that pitted De Francis, principal consultant to the Lone Star Jockey Club, against R. D. Hubbard, the gregarious operator of Hollywood Park and two of De Francis' Pimlico-Laurel board members, Tom and Bob Manfuso.

The glow had not left De Francis' face yesterday as he recounted with relish the events that took place Friday in an auditorium on the University of Texas campus in Austin.

"For one thing, the place seats 300 to 400 people and there was standing room only," De Francis said. After the five groups vying for the license made one last pitch to the five commissioners, the board decided to cast its vote.

The first motion made by commissioner Hugh Fitzsimmons was to award the license to Midpointe Racing, Inc., Hubbard's group.

"There was stony silence," De Francis said. "You could have heard a pin drop in that huge hall. No one would second the motion."

A subsequent motion to award the license to the Trinity Meadows track, which had been recommended by the state's hearing examiner, was also greeted with silence. And then two more motions, to grant two licenses to Trinity Meadows and Midpointe and two li censes to Trinity Meadows and Lone Star, were also rejected.

"At that point, a nervous buzz went through the room," De Francis said. "We all thought there would be an impasse."

At that point, acting commission chairman Glen Blodgett, a veterinarian, moved to grant the license to Lone Star.

By a 4-1 vote, the board accepted Blodgett's proposal "and the )) hooping and hollering hasn't stopped since," De Francis said.

De Francis spelled out what all this means to the Maryland tracks, some 2,000 miles away.

"First of all, I'm not Mr. Texas," he said. "I don't know boo in Texas. My father started this enterprise as a corporate expansion plan in 1988 with Preston Carter [a Texas horseman and developer]. After my father died, Mr. Carter wasn't certain he wanted to continue the arrangement with me. He talked to track operators all over the country. He needed management advice. But, finally, he decided to stick with me. Then in the spring of 1990, when my [Maryland] partners, the Manfusos, did not want this to be a corporate enterprise [Bob Manfuso serves on Hubbard's Hollywood Park board of directors], Marty Jacobs [Pimlico-Laurel's executive vice president and general counsel] and I decided to go it alone."

For their contributions, De Francis and Jacobs will receive 7 percent equity in the $97 million track. De Francis said that he, his father and Jacobs spent roughly $150,000 on contributions and travel expenses in the Texas effort.

"Our equity there is nowhere near what we have invested here," De Francis said. "We [Jacobs and De Francis] have 53 percent equity in Pimlico and 25 percent equity in Laurel [although they control the voting stock].

"Personally, ever since my father died, I have been trying to prove myself. Now in what has been an important, highly visible contest, I have been recognized by an independent group [the Texas commission] after an exhaustive and lengthy hearing process. It is very satisfying. Texas is considered the last great frontier to become an important racing center in this country. It was my father's dream to be a part of it, and his dream has been carried out."

De Francis said practical benefits to Maryland racing include aligning the sport here as a new major national two-state enterprise. "That's important in making contracts with major suppliers [such as Tote and catering companies]. We should get better prices and service.

"Secondly, we will have a good simulcasting arrangement between the two tracks. I don't think Hollywood Park would have wanted to simulcast Maryland races in Texas if they had been awarded the license.

"Thirdly, Texas wants to do things in a big way and have a big impact. If there had been a Southern California-Texas alliance, .. they could have taken on the Triple Crown. Now we can work together and coordinate stakes schedules for big events in both states."

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