Cooke-De Francis a winning ticket?

January 21, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

It remains to be seen whether Jack Kent Cooke is ever able to build his stadium in Laurel. But regardless, his vision of a new, 300-sky-boxed monument to maximum profits has made a lasting impact on the future of sports in Maryland.

Yesterday, Cooke bought 100 acres of land from Joe De Francis and gave De Francis the wherewithal to buy out the Manfuso brothers and remain in control of Laurel and Pimlico. Had Cooke not swooped in, De Francis apparently was going to sell the tracks to R. D. Hubbard, the owner of Hollywood Park.

Had Hubbard taken control, the course of Maryland racing might have taken a sharp, intriguing turn. Hubbard has radical ideas for saving racing. While other track operators battle against the rising popularity of competing gambling ventures such as lotteries and casinos on riverboats and Indian land, Hubbard embraces them.

The centerpiece of his rescue of Hollywood Park is a card-playing club, a classic symbol of the casino gambling reviled by the rest of racing. His idea is to raise the betting handle by luring players of all games to the track. He sees them as potential racing customers, not the enemy. Players are all alike, after all, in that they crave action.

Racing purists accuse Hubbard of making a pact with the devil. They point to racetracks in Minnesota and Arizona that were shuttered soon after Indian casinos opened nearby. They can't stand the idea of merging racing with other gambling ventures. The horses become just another set of numbers, they say.

But the purists are fighting a losing battle on this one. Look at the amazing turnaround of Hollywood Park. In the two years since Hubbard took over, he has erased more than $100 million in debt, spent $20 million to refurbish the plant, restored the track's popularity and made it just about the only racetrack in the country on a quantifiable upswing.

That's all.

While there was no indication that Hubbard would have tried the same casino-gambling idea with Laurel and Pimlico, it made sense that he would. The plan already had worked once. Who knows, Laurel and Pimlico might have been similarly transformed.

But, as they say in the barns, "It ain't gonna happen." Cooke

made sure yesterday that Hubbard wouldn't set foot in Maryland. He detests Hubbard, so the story goes, and wanted no part of being his neighbor.

That means it's back to De Francis running Maryland racing. For good.

It isn't enough that Cooke, just because he wants to squeeze more profits out of his cash cow of a franchise, has interfered with Baltimore's attempt to get an NFL team. Now he's playing God with the state's racing industry.

The sound you hear is the sigh of the Maryland horse community.

It's not that they dislike De Francis, who is a sharp, personable guy by just about all accounts, and particularly adept at dealing with politicians. It's just that they're not sure about his ability to run the racetracks.

The four years he has been in charge have not been particularly good ones. The day-to-day live product isn't the same as it was. The tracks need refurbishing. There is little jazz in the air.

Why should the Maryland racing community embrace De Francis when he suggests that a proposed track in Virginia, which has no racing history, is the savior of Maryland racing?

Ah, well.

Let's be fair to De Francis. He has operated in a lousy economy under the considerable weight of his civil war with the Manfusos, which, said one horseman, left the racing community "feeling like stepchildren in a divorce." Freed of those shackles, and infused with this new money, maybe De Francis will take off.

He should start by fixing up the tracks, which aren't pleasant places.

He should take advantage of the state's terrific racing history and open up a Preakness museum.

He should stop putting a $20 hammer to fans before they make a bet.

Would life under Hubbard have been better? Or worse? Who knows? It becomes one of those moot points you can debate for hours and never answer. It's like a baseball trade that almost happened.

This is what we know:

Jack Kent Cooke is planning to move the Redskins to Laurel. (Really, truly.)

Jack Kent Cooke generally gets his way. (Guv, take heed.)

Joe De Francis certainly isn't helping Baltimore's NFL hopes.

Joe De Francis' vision of Maryland racing is the only one that counts now.

Money does talk, huh?

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