Maryland's Troubled Race Tracks

April 21, 1994

If Joe De Francis sold buggy whips, no one would care if he lost $7.3 million last year. But Mr. De Francis ran up that shocking deficit operating this state's main thoroughbred race tracks -- Pimlico and Laurel. Small wonder state officials are alarmed: Racing is a $1 billion industry here.

Maryland racing reached its zenith in Maryland under the creative leadership of Frank J. De Francis. It has now reached what many consider its nadir under his son. Joe De Francis doesn't have his father's management or p.r. skills. Listen to the tracks' ex-financial officer: "With the direction they are going, where they don't address the problem, come up with a business plan and budget, they are going to be insolvent. No question about it."

Listen to an influential member of the Maryland Racing Commission: "The racing industry means too much to this state. We don't want to see these tracks go into bankruptcy or be sold to out of state owners." The commissioner accused Mr. De Francis of poor management, "dumb mistakes" and a lack of concern for customers.

The state panel took the drastic step of ordering Mr. De Francis to produce a business plan, submit monthly financial statements and address key questions pertaining to the two tracks' future.

It was a remarkable show of forcefulness by the normally docile members of the racing commission. But the situation warranted strong action. No one wants a repeat of 1991 when the state's bankrupt harness tracks were run by a trustee.

Maryland racing is troubled. Off-track betting and simulcast racing aren't helping. Live racing has suffered tremendously. The quality of thoroughbreds on racing cards has dropped. Ditto wagering and attendance. "You can fire a cannon ball across the grandstand and hit no one," grouses a business executive. Concession revenue is down 40 percent; parking revenue is down 20 percent.

The tracks make less profit from simulcast races, which account for over half of all wagers. Meanwhile, Mr. De Francis has been fixated on winning the right to build tracks in Texas and Virginia and fending off an ownership challenge.

Pimlico and Laurel need strong and pragmatic management focused on improved live racing. The tracks need exciting promotional efforts and a plan to broaden the appeal of this entertaining sport. What the tracks do not need is an overemphasis on off-track betting parlors and far-flung simulcast races. And it emphatically does not need to be turned into a full-scale gambling casino -- that would be the quickest way to kill racing for good.

Mr. De Francis should hand over control of the tracks to an experienced racing executive. That's the best way to meet the commission's demands and reverse the declines at Pimlico and Laurel. With Pimlico's all-important spring meet in full swing, it's time to give track-goers more for their money's worth than they've been getting.

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