De Francis' plan is in the money

KEN ROSENTHAL

December 03, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

WASHINGTON -- The horse racing ties between Maryland and Virginia date to the colonial era, when an enterprising owner named George Washington crossed state lines to race in Annapolis, far from his home stable in Mount Vernon, Va.

Now, Joe De Francis wants to cement the historic link with an idea that could revolutionize the racing industry. His proposal for a Maryland-Virginia racing circuit is unprecedented, and in theory it sounds wonderful.

But enacting his bold vision?

That's a horse of another color.

In an undertaking of this magnitude, the trick is to satisfy the self-interest of every rival faction. De Francis, the man who runs Laurel and Pimlico, will have no problem doing that in Maryland. But wish him luck as he tries to overcome a myriad of obstacles in Virginia.

Here's a state that for years fought religious and conservative groups in its quest to pass pari-mutuel legislation. It finally happened in 1988, and with racing interests still awaiting construction of the first track, De Francis wants to limit live racing to 65 days in the summer.

It's as if Baltimore was awarded a football team, then told it could hold only one game a year. The difference is, the NFL is a highly lucrative venture. De Francis' message to Virginia amounts to a plea: We must all hang together, or hang separately.

His point is valid, but that doesn't mean it will be embraced by Virginia's old guard, or more important, its General Assembly. Where there's racing, there's politics. And De Francis must get a Virginia off-track betting statute changed before he can set the process in motion.

By summer 1995, his goal is to race at Pimlico in the spring, Laurel in the fall and winter and a new, resort-style track between Richmond and Williamsburg in the summer. The system would be linked by an extensive OTB and intertrack network, so racing fans in both states and Washington could bet year-round.

Don't shed a tear for the end of live summer racing in Maryland: The betting handle would increase dramatically, and De Francis estimates purses in the state would increase from $41.9 million to $68 million. Fans don't care if they see the horses live or on TV. They just want to bet -- and bet on quality.

Virginia, on the other hand, is virgin territory. Its OTB law requires a 1:1 ratio between televised and live races, so that the state doesn't simply become a satellite theater for Maryland and Kentucky. With only three months of live racing, OTB would be wasteful, not profitable.

But, at a news conference yesterday, De Francis said the law could be amended so that it protects racing interests in Virginia while allowing him to operate his circuit. He spoke excitedly about his proposed track, Colonial Downs, referring to it as a potential "Saratoga of the South."

First, though, he must win the license -- and, bizarre as it sounds, Virginia might decide to give it instead to Churchill Downs. Officials from the Kentucky track are scheduled to meet with a Virginia group tomorrow about forming a joint venture to build a track in the Tidewater area.

Churchill Downs helped lobby for OTB in Virginia, and it surely can promise the state more live racing than De Francis. The question is, what kind of live racing? A four-track circuit already .. exists in Kentucky. The horsemen in that state wouldn't bother shipping to Virginia.

De Francis' trump card is that he's got the horses -- no small thing right now.

The number of foals is expected to reduce from a record 51,293 in 1986 to 36,000 in '93. The incentive to breed diminished when owners and breeders lost their tax exemptions under the Tax Reform Act of 1986. The sluggish economy is discouraging others from entering the game.

The horse shortage is not yet acute, but, according to De Francis, there will be 10 percent fewer live races in Maryland this year than last. Competition from Virginia, he said, would be "enormously detrimental." In fact, it could bankrupt the racing industries in both states.

If Virginia wants to go it alone, it should consider the examples of Canterbury Downs in Minnesota and the Birmingham Turf Club in Alabama, two tracks that followed similar paths to ruin. De Francis, at least, presents an opportunity for growth, at a time when the sport is clearly in trouble.

In Maryland, as in the rest of the country, the competition for the gambling dollar keeps increasing -- from El Gordo to keno to the prospect of riverboat casinos, not to mention illegal betting on non-wagering sports such as pro football.

Racing needs new ideas, and this one is worth a shot. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Believe it or not, it's Joe De Francis.

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