De Francis scoffs at Delaware's denial

On Horse Racing

February 18, 1996|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Delaware Park's owner appeared before the Maryland Racing Commission last week, trying to assuage fears about that track's threat to the Maryland Jockey Club's operations because of the introduction of slot machines at Delaware tracks.

But Joe De Francis isn't buying the pitch.

"That's like a guy who has a .44 Magnum and says to you, 'Don't worry, I'm not going to shoot. My gun isn't loaded and you don't need one,' " said De Francis, president of Laurel Park and Pimlico.

"If it wasn't such a serious situation, what he said would be laughable."

Bill Rickman Jr. told the governing panel that Maryland racing doesn't face the crisis that De Francis has been forecasting since the late December installation of slots at Delaware Park and Dover Downs began producing thousands of dollars daily that can be directed into the tracks' purse structures.

De Francis has been attempting to convince legislators that he needs financial aid to combat the enormous increase that is sure to follow.

"In their first [condition] book, there isn't even any slot revenue," De Francis said. "It's just based on simulcasting. They must add slot money by law. When they do, it will be equal to ours."

Rickman said Delaware's purses will rise by 50 percent this year -- to $15 million for 130 racing days.

But De Francis countered by saying that the daily average is not the important statistic because Maryland offers more races with higher purses (stakes and allowance company).

But certain condition races will offer more in Delaware, he said, and Maryland horsemen will be tempted to ship in and out for the extra money.

"Marylanders don't need to stable up there. They can stay here, ship in, run and come back," said De Francis.

A report by Thalheimer Research Associates of Lexington, Ky., estimates that Delaware gaming will mean a decrease in handle of nearly 15 percent overall at Maryland betting sites, depending on the location.

That computes to nearly $80 million in lost handle this year, with $67.4 million of the loss to be suffered by the state's thoroughbred tracks and the rest by harness operators.

The report also cautions that more handle could be lost if "Delaware purses are increased substantially relative to Maryland purses."

Meanwhile, Rosecroft Raceway -- which had the first dose of head-on competition with the Delaware slots -- continues to struggle.

With an average of fewer than six horses per race on Saturday nights, fields of widely divergent abilities, weather-related problems and no relief in sight, the harness track also is looking to the state for help.

"I think the feeling in Annapolis now is that we have to react quickly," said Rosecroft general manager Dennis Dowd. "Waiting year might not be wise.

"The inkling is that the House of Delegates realizes this is serious and that probably the only thing that is going to save it is giving us the same tools [slots] that Delaware has."

Dowd said the general atmosphere surrounding the issue is making it difficult to sell the Rosecroft signal elsewhere.

On top of that, contract negotiations with mutuel clerks and related employees are still unsettled, although the employees continue to work.

Dowd is not opposed to more thoroughbred races being imported at night on the Maryland network, as the off-track parlor operators requested.

"I came from a state [New Jersey] where we did well with thoroughbreds," he said. "It did not cannibalize the harness business."

Preakness prices rise

Six categories of tickets for the 1996 Preakness have been moderately increased in price by the Maryland Jockey Club.

Rises of $10 have been scheduled for grandstand upper box seats (to $110), outside grandstand lower box seats (to $120) and Sports Palace dining room seats (to $40).

Prices of tickets will climb by $5 for Sports Palace reserved seats (to $145), grandstand upper reserved seats (to $55) and grandstand concourse reserved seats (to $40).

Only one change has been made in parking fees, with space at the Hayward preferred lot rising $10 to $70.

"We needed a little bit of adjustment to make them closer to what is charged for events like the [Kentucky] Derby and Breeders' Cup," said Jim Mango, chief administrative officer.

"There is so much demand for these seats," Mango said, "and we only increase about a third of them every year."

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