Also-ran in Dixie

August 05, 1994

Perhaps this time Joe De Francis has gotten the message. Twice he has tried to expand his race track empire to Southern states. Twice he has been rejected. He finished out of the money in efforts to open a track in Texas and was badly defeated on Tuesday by voters of Loudon County (Va.), who want nothing to do with a race track.

Our message to Mr. De Francis: Come home, Joe. Maryland's thoroughbred racing industry needs your full attention.

Mr. De Francis poured millions into his pursuit of these Southern tracks. Think what it would have meant to the health of the local racing industry had those millions been pumped into improving Laurel and Pimlico and promoting racing among the local populace.

There are critics of Mr. De Francis who contend he hasn't done a good job of running his two local tracks, that morale is low, the plants are not well maintained and patrons are less than enthusiastic. On top of that, the Laurel-Pimlico tracks lost $7 million last year, though much of this was tied to Mr. De Francis' Southern strategy that backfired.

Now the owner has no distractions. He can concentrate fully on upgrading Laurel and Pimlico. More than a financial commitment of new funds, this means better promotion and management to make thoroughbred racing a more popular sport in the region. His father, Frank De Francis, was a magician at this aspect of racing. It is his son's turn to prove he inherited that same kind of showmanship and administrative savvy.

If racing is to thrive once again in Maryland, those in the industry must work overtime to persuade fans to come to the track. At the same time, the next governor may have to sit down with members of the industry to see what Annapolis can do. One possibility: a commitment from the state to make needed capital improvements. But such government largess won't come without a quid pro quo to ensure that the industry, not the track owner, is the beneficiary of any financial windfall.

The best way to ensure that Maryland's tracks are strong enough to withstand a new thoroughbred track in the Richmond or Norfolk areas is to improve the facilities and the amenities at Laurel and Pimlico and to upgrade the caliber of racing at those two tracks. This should be No. 1 on Mr. De Francis' priority list. His invasion of Dixie just didn't work out.

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