Pimlico civilities mask honesty

May 17, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AS THERE is a time and place for everything, Joseph De Francis, owner of Pimlico Race Course, bumped into Parris Glendening, governor of Maryland, on Friday morning at the annual Preakness Alibi Breakfast and resisted every impulse to tell the governor precisely what he thinks of him.

"How are you?" said Glendening, making a pass at convivial small talk.

"I'm great," said De Francis, choking back all honesty in his extensive vocabulary.

"You look good," said the governor, noticing De Francis' new beard.

"My friends say it makes me look like a terrorist," said De Francis.

"Well," said the governor, "you look good."

"You too," said De Francis.

And, like that, the two men mouthed platitudes to cover the raw antagonism between them, which has become a focal point of this summer's campaign for governor. De Francis says horse racing cannot continue in Maryland without slot machines at his tracks, and Glendening, refusing for the first time in anyone's memory to vacillate, says no gambling, no backing down, not as long as he's governor.

"The first time I've ever known him to take a position and stick to it," said De Francis after the governor moved out of earshot. He stewed over this for a moment. There were 85,000 people expected for yesterday's Preakness, which sounds lovely but masks the depressing arithmetic of the rest of the racing year in this state.

"We generate 300 percent of our income on Preakness Day," said De Francis. "In other words, the rest of the year, we're strictly losing money. And this guy shows up and says what a friend he is to racing, and then we never hear from him again."

Then De Francis talked specific numbers, and sounded like a guy who stays up nights trying to make sense of them: the $7 billion in Delaware slot machine action in the last two years, much of it from Maryland bettors; the $150 million Delaware's treasury has directly reaped from it; the $90 million in renovations at Charlestown, the West Virginia racetrack that has newly installed slot machines, and how these slots represent another choke hold on Maryland racing.

"Can you imagine this?" De Francis said now. "Ninety million for ++ renovations, when our entire capital budget for all three Maryland tracks is $3 million a year. And little Delaware's taking in $150 million a year, which we would dwarf in Maryland.

"You know, the governor goes on TV and talks about families, and he talks about the problems with gambling. He wins all the sound bites. But, meanwhile, Delaware's buying computers for every one of their school kids with this slot machine money, and he's still talking about family values. It sounds good until you start to examine what he's saying."

This governor has a tendency to sound caught between naivete and hypocrisy. Gambling's unhealthy, he says, skipping past the state lottery, skipping past the casinos that operated in Prince George's County when he was its chief executive, skipping past the 7,000 state lottery outlets and the endless TV advertising for it, and skipping past the desire to put slots into three racetracks where gambling already exists.

"Every time you go to a 7-Eleven," De Francis said, "you've got a state lottery machine. You go for a pizza, you see a machine. You go to a bowling alley and they're pushing the lottery. Everywhere you go, it's shoved in your face. You want to gamble at the track, at least you have to make the effort. So what does he mean about being anti-gambling?"

"Hah," said Eileen Rehrmann, the governor's chief competitor in the Democratic primary, as she made the rounds at Friday's Alibi Breakfast and answered questions about Glendening's slot machine posture.

"When he was county executive," said Rehrmann, "Prince George's was the casino capital of Maryland. Now he wants to say he's against gambling, at the same time he's promoting the lottery on every street corner. He says he wants a strong racing industry, but the only race he cares about is the Preakness, because it gets him on national TV. And the fact is, racing probably can't survive unless it gets the added revenue from slot machines."

That message tends to get a little lost on a weekend in which Pimlico captures attention across the nation. In a crowd of 91,000, many of them betting money, many of them outwardly sober, many of them taking at least momentary interest in actual racing, it's easy to forget the industry's real troubles.

And then you have Parris Glendening and Joe De Francis saying hello to each other, and acting like gentlemen, when everybody senses the antagonism behind their civilized smiles.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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