Hubbard isn't out of running

April 08, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

ARCADIA, Calif. -- R. D. Hubbard, who came close to gaining control of Pimlico and Laurel race courses earlier this year, predicted yesterday that within a year he could resume talks with Joe De Francis about buying the tracks, which lost $7.23 million last year.

"At the time, the door [for future negotiations] was never closed," said Hubbard, chairman of the board and chief operating officer of Hollywood Park Inc. "We said let's give it time and let it settle down. We have had no conversations since then. But sometime next year I believe we'll be talking again."

Hubbard said he thinks talks will resume because "nothing is going to change [at the Maryland tracks]. They are kidding themselves if they think it will. In another six months the situation is not going to improve that much. Sure the simulcasting figures look great, but remember that cuts down on the betting on the live races and you still have to pay 3, 4, 5 percent for the imported product. When you think you're doing great, it's not really happening."

In the first quarter of 1994, total betting was up about 40 percent thanks to the success of simulcasting, but that was compared to the first quarter of 1993, one of the worst in the tracks' history.

In January, Hollywood Park reportedly was ready to pay $15 million for an 80 percent share in the Maryland tracks. It would have assumed most of the tracks' estimated $40 million debt.

The negotiations took place as De Francis was trying to buy out Tom and Bob Manfuso, his estranged partners. Instead of selling majority interest to Hollywood Park, however, De Francis worked out a deal with Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke that enabled De Francis to keep the tracks along with Martin Jacobs, Laurel/Pimlico's general counsel and executive vice president, and De Francis' sister, Karin Van Dyke.

"To be honest, we could have made a deal this year and just bought out the Manfusos' interests, but that didn't give us control, and that's what we wanted," Hubbard said. "We couldn't force Marty Jacobs or Joe's sister to sell their interests," Hubbard said. "I thought we were doing her a favor. We were led to believe we had a deal up to the end. We were disappointed. But I can't place all the blame on Joe."

Even though the tracks lost millions last year, Hubbard said he "firmly believes in Maryland racing" if the tracks are managed properly. "Frank De Francis and the Manfusos brought it back once and I don't know why it can't be done again," he said.

When contacted at Laurel yesterday, De Francis said that the possibility of selling his tracks to Hollywood "is an issue that's not on the table. I like R. D. and respect his abilities."

Bob Manfuso still retains his seat on the Hollywood Park board of directors, and Hubbard said he thought part of De Francis' reluctance to sell Laurel/Pimlico to Hollywood was that somehow Manfuso could be involved once again in managing the Maryland tracks. "That's paranoid and I don't understand that way of thinking," Hubbard said.

"Bob has good contacts with horsemen and he has given us a lot of ideas, including changes we have made to our autumn races," Hubbard said.

De Francis and Hubbard could cross paths again in Virginia, where De Francis is one of six applicants vying to build a track. Last year, De Francis and Hubbard discussed becoming partners in the venture, and four other applicants also have approached Hollywood Park about participating in their Virginia bids. But Hubbard said "we're going to see who is awarded the license before we take a position."

Hubbard said racing can work in Virginia. "It's a unique situation. Success there depends on who gets the license. It can work better in conjunction with Maryland, but it can still work without it."

There's a large enough market area, he added, to offer big enough purses to attract horses.

When asked about Hubbard's comments, De Francis said: "I am surprised at his analysis of Virginia because I agree wholeheartedly in his belief that the horse shortage is not going to reverse itself and there is going to be less live racing. That's why logic compels the conclusion that Virginia has to combine with Maryland to make racing in that state work."

Hubbard and Hollywood Park now operate seven different pari-mutuel tracks, recently adding Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Ariz. Hubbard said they are interested in acquiring racetracks where there is the potential of offering alternative forms of gaming. At its parent plant in Inglewood, Calif., Hollywood Park plans to open a casino card club in a new $20 million building, when licensing is approved in a couple of months.

De Francis and harness operators in Maryland plan to seek legislation in the General Assembly next year that will permit casino gambling at the Maryland tracks.

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