Laurel fans find track conditions sloppy

February 06, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

Poor customer service.

Uninspired managers.

Outdated facilities.

Unimaginative marketing.

Everywhere you go at Laurel Race Course these days, it seems that many people -- from high rollers in the Sports Palace to the $2 bettors in the grandstand -- have a complaint about the way things are run at Maryland's thoroughbred tracks.

Joe De Francis has assumed total control of Pimlico and Laurel along with his sister, Karin Van Dyke, and his longtime friend and partner, Marty Jacobs. De Francis has a chance to make a fresh start in managing the tracks after four years of feuding with his former partners, Tom and Bob Manfuso, whom he bought out Friday.

The introduction of simulcasting and off-track betting parlors is helping the bottom line. But many fans say that basics needed to succeed in an entertainment-oriented business are lacking.

Is De Francis listening? Will he make changes? And does he have the money to afford them?

De Francis, 39, said he will hold a news conference in a couple of weeks to outline new plans and agendas for the tracks.

"I have said it over and over again," De Francis said. "But I'll say it one more time. The fight with the Manfusos has depleted resources and taken away time needed to impose the kind of management procedures we need to see implemented.

ZTC "But now that it is over -- and I'm ready to face all sorts of new challenges -- I think you'll see improvements in many areas. I have a lot of faith in John Mooney, who has the reputation as the most customer-oriented racetrack general manager in the nation."

In interviews during the past week, many fans have said that nothing short of a massive overhaul in management attitude and style will provide the spark needed to improve the track's appeal.

De Francis has the talent and intelligence, his friends say. Now is the time to put them to work.

Bryan Johnson, 30, is a manager for United Parcel Service in Laurel. He says he loves coming to the track, but what he sees there "drives me crazy," he said.

"This place is an absolute gold mine if it was done right," Johnson said. "I come from a very service-oriented company. But what I see here makes me cringe. Everyone who works at the track looks like they are ticked off to be here. Middle management is terrible. They are rude, and the ones I see always seem to have scowls on their faces. They know nothing about customer relations.

"I especially remember one incident. A railing in one of the clubhouse boxes had just been painted. A man leaned against it and got paint all over the arm of his shirt. What do you do if you're a manager? Get $25 out of petty cash and give it to the guy for a new shirt. Instead, this man had to file complaint after complaint and come back over a period of months before it was straightened out.

"Employees here need to take four- to 12-hour training courses like we do at UPS to learn how to treat the customer."

List of complaints

Johnson is not alone in his criticisms, as complaints range from poor presentation of simulcasting to a lack of cleanliness.

Now that simulcasting is as much of a draw as live racing, fans want updated and comfortable facilities to be able to study past performance charts for the various tracks in a more user-friendly setting. Here are other items fans say they want: more large-screen televisions to watch simulcasts, lines exclusively for each simulcast track and more information provided by the in-house simulcast show.

At other tracks that offer simulcasting, fans can use rooms specifically designed for bettors, with individual desks and adequate lighting. At Laurel and Pimlico, patrons crowd around a bank of televisions.

Matt Kane, a horse owner and regular bettor, said: "You'd think that by now they'd know how to do simulcasting right. But there is too much confusion. How would you like to be in line with two minutes left to bet on a horse from one track and there's people in front of you with 15 minutes left to bet on a horse from another track and you get shut out?

"They should have certain lines for certain tracks like they do at Charles Town. They need larger TVs. They need to have more consideration for their fans.

"How about the day people came out in bad weather to bet on a simulcast-only card and then they announced after the seventh race that the machines would be cut off in 15 minutes? Is that anyway to treat people who came all the way out here and want to bet?

"Then for the last race, they only have a few TVs on and only one food stand open. There should be pit bosses in the betting rings like they have at the casinos in Atlantic City. Someone should be paying attention to people who come every day and notice who makes a lot of wagers. Cashiers could even do this. Someone should be around to say, 'We appreciate your business. Here's a lunch on us.' "

P.R. lacking

Johnson's biggest complaint is that not enough is done to attract new fans.

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