When Jack Kent Cooke came to Joe De Francis' rescue a week ago and lent him $8.2 million to buy out the Manfuso brothers' shares in Laurel and Pimlico Race Courses, it wasn't the first time Cooke had become involved in a plan concerning the sale of the Laurel track.
In June 1981 -- almost 13 years ago -- prominent Howard County attorney and horseman C. Oliver Goldsmith received a telephone call from John Mooney Sr., who had been recently fired as president of Laurel.
Mooney wanted Goldsmith to represent an unnamed client in a bid to buy the Anne Arundel County track from John D. Schapiro, who had been Mooney's boss and at the time owned Laurel.
Mooney's principal instruction to Goldsmith: Keep the deal secret.
After Goldsmith began negotiations with Schapiro and some time had lapsed, he began to wonder about the identity of his secret client and if, indeed, he was legitimate.
"Finally I told Mooney, 'John, I'm going to look like a fool if I &L proceed with negotiations and this buyer can't come up with the money. I have to know if this person is serious,' " Goldsmith recently recalled.
The next day Mooney gave Goldsmith a cashier's check for $900,000 to be held in an escrow account and used as a down payment if the deal was struck. That convinced Goldsmith the client was serious.
Goldsmith said that only after he and Schapiro's attorney, Eugene Feinblatt, had worked on the deal for about six months and had drawn up a contract with Schapiro agreeing to sell the track for $9 million to a company called the Three Four Corp., did he find out the name of the buyer.
It was Jack Kent Cooke.
"I was amazed," Goldsmith said, "and Schapiro was dazzled."
There was only one drawback: Cooke never bought the track.
Schapiro said he remembers the episode as being "very, very secretive. But it was a very nebulous type of thing. There were some negotiations, but I can't say I got too engrossed in them. Let's say I wasn't going around planning on how I'd spend the money."
Three years later, Schapiro sold the track for $16 million to a group headed by Frank De Francis and Tom and Bob Manfuso.
Goldsmith still has a copy of the $900,000 check from Cooke and the contract in his files.
Mooney, who is now retired and is the father of current Laurel GM John E. Mooney, said Cooke had plans to build a Meadowlands-type sports complex at Laurel and had asked him to serve as project manager to buy the track and adjacent land.
Cooke recently denied any such plans. "John must be dreaming. His memory must be failing him in his old age," he said.
But Cooke did acknowledge an attempt to buy Laurel Race Course.
"It was shelved," Cooke said, "because I felt the NFL wouldn't have looked favorably on it."
Now, nearly 13 years later, after bailing out Joe De Francis, agreeing to buy 100 acres of track property, and reportedly agreeing to finance the relocation of the Laurel barn area, no one is doubting the seriousness of Cooke's intentions to build a stadium for his Washington Redskins football team at Laurel.
Possible settlement this week
No date has been set for De Francis to officially buy out the Manfusos, although the deal must be completed by Feb. 7.
Last Friday, De Francis said closing could come one day this week, possibly on Thursday.
De Francis will be at the Thoroughbred Racing Association's annual convention in New Orleans most of this week, but his lawyers say his presence isn't necessary at the settlement.
Canton River skips classics
Canton River, considered by some observers to be the best Maryland-bred juvenile last season, isn't being nominated to the Triple Crown.
Andrew G. P. Hobbs, who owns and bred the horse, said that "in my own judgment, an awful lot of horses get ruined" by racing in the spring classics.
"For one thing, my horse is a gelding, so there is nothing to be gained in the area of breeding potential," Hobbs said. "He is still very immature and I thought this winter would be an ideal time to lay him up."
Canton River is at the Fair Hill Training Center in Cecil County with his trainer, Eugene Weymouth.
"We blistered his ankles," Hobbs said. "There really wasn't anything wrong with him, although he was showing some wear '' and tear. Everyone gets excited in the spring and wants a classics runner. I figure I have a nice horse against Maryland-breds. So why try to conquer the world? I follow the old adage: 'Keep yourself in the best company, and your horses in the worst,' although I'm certainly not disparaging Maryland-breds when I say that. There's good money to be made in the Maryland-bred program."
Hobbs said Canton River should return to the races in late spring.
"My hope is that when all the others have turned to marshmallows, he'll be there," he said. "I'd rather find out next fall if he belongs in top company than in the spring."