It's time to give Mooney the reins FTC

March 21, 1994|By John Steadman

What John Mooney is capable of doing, as few others can, has to do with providing a personal touch to a racing operation and in the process create a feeling of confidence, trust and caring. One reason he was appointed general manager at Pimlico and Laurel was to lift the racetracks out of a morass of ongoing difficulties, some of which had been inadvertently self-inflicted.

How desperately Maryland needs Mooney. His appointment came Aug. 1 amid much fanfare. The Mooney reputation, you see, preceded him from Delaware Park, where he functioned in a highly professional style and was a magician in stretching a bare-bones budget to astonishing limits, besides winning friends among the spectators and horsemen.

Mooney's leadership abilities, along with a masterful public relations touch, seemed to be precisely what Pimlico and Laurel needed to put the brakes on their toboggan-like plunge. At the time, compliments were extended to Joe De Francis, the owner of the Pimlico and Laurel properties, over the profound wisdom of his selection.

But so far the perception -- and it may only be that -- is Mooney hasn't been given an unencumbered chance to get Maryland's two major tracks untracked. To offer an appropriate analogy, John has to be put on the horse to see how well he can ride. Either he can or he can't.

Figuratively speaking, De Francis has been all over the track, concerning himself with the establishment of betting parlors, simulcasting and trying to get a toehold in Texas and Virginia with thoroughbred racing. And then, too, there were the protracted difficulties in arranging a buy-out of his father's previous partners, Bob and Tommy Manfuso.

But Joe knows if Pimlico and Laurel don't make a turnaround then there may not be a future to tap in other states. Hopefully, what De Francis will do is be the policy-maker, the hands-on spokesman and lobbyist, but place the racing decisions in the hands of Mooney.

So far, the one recognizable change Mooney brought about in his brief role at Pimlico and Laurel is open to serious debate, that of replacing the highly competent starter, Eric Blind. The future will determine if that was right or wrong. But, regardless, it hardly translates to why the two tracks last year suffered combined losses of $7.3 million.

There are various reasons, not all De Francis' fault, for Pimlico and Laurel to take such a financial pounding. Something has to be done. Crisis time is at hand. The sport means too much for action not to be taken. The status quo isn't good enough. Putting on blinders isn't the way to go.

At this stage, if De Francis is going to get a return on his investment, especially the expense and trouble he went to in hiring Mooney, then he's going to have to see what he can do in putting the money machines -- which is what racetracks represent -- back into full working order.

The perception, right or wrong, is that after De Francis appointed Mooney to a position of authority he has been slow to hand him the reins. Mooney has a proven track record that suggests he knows all aspects of the business. When De Francis was searching for a general manager, he made it known he wanted the best available racing executive in the country.

Well, he got him. But Mooney hasn't had the opportunity, at least from the viewpoint of the press and public, which is more important, to make the decisions that were hopefully anticipated. The question of whether Mooney has the title but not the latitude to execute moves is troubling, if such be the case.

If De Francis got himself into this predicament by virtue of his own judgment is one thing, but if he's listening to others then he'd be better off ignoring their advice. The time has come to offer Mooney the opportunity to do what he hired him to do -- run the tracks.

Mooney is customer-oriented, which is what racing is all about. At Delaware Park and earlier at Woodbine in Toronto, he was able to do things for the fans that made them feel welcome. They, not the owners or the horsemen, are vital to the sport.

The troubles aren't going to vanish unless De Francis gives Mooney the authority to make the calls. And if he doesn't succeed then adios, see you later. Under this scenario, De Francis will be doing a favor not only for Maryland racing but, most emphatically, for himself.

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