Racing wins by shifting spotlight off De Francis Stress on industry earns host of aid bills

March 06, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

A strategic decision by Maryland's horse-racing industry to ZTC divert attention from the state's major racetracks and their majority owner, Joseph A. De Francis, has resulted in an outpouring of racing-assistance bills in the General Assembly.

After their ambitious pitch for aid and slot machines fell flat last year, horse-racing leaders decided they had better change tactics. They began emphasizing the industry as a whole -- breeding farms, horse owners, its thousands of employees -- instead of the balance sheets of the racetracks and the intense personality of De Francis.

So far, the strategy has worked. Legislators have introduced 22 racing-related bills.

"I notice Joe's not as out-front, not as vocal as usual," said Del. Bennett Bozman, a Democrat from Worcester County.

"I think it's helped. Before, you had people saying: 'Here comes Joe. He just made $4 million. What's his problem now?' " Bozman said.

De Francis still speaks at hearings and lobbies behind the scenes, pleading incessantly for slot machines. He insists that Maryland tracks must have them to keep pace with Delaware and West Virginia, where slots have greatly increased the purse money for which horses race.

But De Francis shares the spotlight with leading breeders such as Michael Pons of Country Life Farm, the birthplace of Cigar, and leaders of the state breeders' and horsemen's associations.

"We're not trying to submerge Joe, or hide him," said Timothy T. Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "But when the racetracks go it alone, they come off as a bunch of guys in the gaming business interested primarily in the bottom line.

"There's a whole big component of this that goes way beyond the racetrack. There are 18,000, 20,000 people making their living at this every day. So don't just focus on Joe De Francis and the racetracks. We're all part of this picture."

As part of the strategy, prominent breeders and horsemen accompanied legislators on tours of immaculate horse farms as well as ramshackle stables at the racetracks. They organized joint dinners and meetings. They manned displays at annual meetings of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and Maryland Association of Counties.

"We saw a sea change in Annapolis," said Alan M. Foreman, a Baltimore lawyer representing the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "They began to appreciate other aspects of the industry beyond the racetrack and racetrack management."

The plan was crafted -- and endorsed by De Francis himself -- before De Francis' well-publicized problems with campaign contributions. In July, he was accused of -- and pleaded no

contest to -- making $12,000 in illegal contributions to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's 1994 campaign.

De Francis said the new strategy was necessary also to counter the claim of anti-slots activists that the machines would merely enrich the track owners.

"This goes light-years beyond my ownership of the racetracks," De Francis said. "Our industry is spread out all over Maryland. It literally touches every corner of the state. The trouble is, it's not as tangible to the legislature as a football stadium, a large factory or the port.

"One of our primary objectives was to educate as many legislators and policy-makers as we could, to make the industry as tangible to them as possible. We tried to put some human faces behind the numbers."

Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Democrat from Cecil County and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he has never seen so many bills aimed at helping the horse industry. He even introduced one -- for the first time in 19 years in the Senate.

"They're more visible this year, yes," Baker said of the various elements of the racing community. "But I think the bleak picture they're painting is overdone. I don't think they're that bad off. But the potential's there for them to be that bad off in the future."

The picture they paint has so many horse owners, trainers, breeders and bettors running off to slots-rich states that the storied tradition of Maryland racing becomes crippled.

While it's not certain that racing will get relief this year, Baker and a host of other legislators buy at least part of the industry's picture. Baker's bill would divert as much as $15 million from the state lottery into purses at state racetracks -- harness and thoroughbred.

"The horse-racing industry contributes so much more to the Maryland economy than the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens and all those sports put together," Baker said. "Is it worth saving? I really think it is."

Other bills would reduce taxes the tracks pay to the state, authorize the sale of specially designed horse license plates, redirect money earned from uncashed betting tickets into purses and grant tax relief to horse owners and breeders.

And, of course, bills would legalize slot machines. They are the most controversial -- and the ones Glendening has vowed again and again to veto.

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