Maryland racing: safe by a nose?

January 24, 1994

Joseph De Francis' last-minute deal to keep control of Laurel and Pimlico race tracks is the least bad result that could have come from the takeover battle with his principal partners.

There is still some ground for uncertainty as to exactly how the surprise purchase will work out for Maryland's beleaguered racing industry. But at least the two tracks, the citadels of Maryland racing, remain in local ownership. As Marylanders have learned in other sports, that means a lot. Whether or not it means a revived industry is still a question.

Mr. De Francis was in a bind. He had to buy out two feuding partners, the Manfuso brothers, or surrender his control of Laurel and Pimlico to them. He did not have the money himself. Until Thursday, 24 hours before the deadline, it appeared likely he was going to sell majority control of the tracks to a California entrepreneur, R. D. Hubbard. At the last minute, Jack Kent Cooke came --ing from the sidelines, and suddenly Mr. De Francis had his own financing. So far, so good.

Meanwhile, it is not clear who has promised what to whom. Mr. Cooke now has a lot more land at Laurel than he initially wanted for his Redskins stadium. Mr. De Francis keeps control of Laurel and Pimlico, along with his sister, the only one in this transaction who appears to have behaved selflessly. And Mr. Hubbard is left on the outside, looking in.

Or is he? Even after being bailed out (again) by Mr. Cooke's intervention, Mr. De Francis kept talking to Mr. Hubbard's representatives. About what? We don't know. Does this matter much? It might.

Depending on whom you ask, Mr. Hubbard, owner of the Hollywood Park track, is the best or worst thing to happen to racing in this decade. He gained control of the track in a brutal takeover battle (earning Mr. Cooke's enmity in the process) and has transformed it into a money-maker.

But the transformation was not accomplished entirely through racing. He has also added other forms of gambling, anathema to most people in racing. If he had gained control of Laurel and Pimlico, it is highly probable he would have sought to transform them into giant gambling casinos.

Now that Mr. De Francis has rid himself of his debilitating battle with the Manfusos, he can focus on the sorry plight of both tracks and Maryland racing. The industry abounds with skeptics who wonder if he can run the tracks successfully. His allies say he hasn't yet had a chance to show what he can do. Now he does. As they say around the betting windows, it's time to put up or shut up.

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