Even with Rehrmann out of race, De Francis campaigns for slots

On Horse Racing

August 16, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

One thing about Joe De Francis: He is not easily deterred.

After Eileen M. Rehrmann dropped out of the governor's race last week, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said of her support for slot machines at horse tracks: "What we learned in the last few months was this was not so burning an issue that it would be a determining factor."

De Francis, principal owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, disagrees -- strongly. The issue still resonates, De Francis insists. "The problem was simply one of money," he said.

Rehrmann quit the race because she didn't have enough money to wage an effective campaign, she said. But isn't it possible she didn't have enough money because one of her main issue, slots at tracks, didn't excite voters?

De Francis acknowledged: "I don't know if it was chicken-and-egg problem." But he quickly recited the Maryland Jockey Club's latest polling data -- compiled by Peter D. Hart Research Associates July 21-26 after telephone interviews with 809 registered voters.

What was their position on slots at Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway? The results: 18 percent strongly favored, 29 percent somewhat favored, 17 percent somewhat opposed, 22 percent strongly opposed. Or 47 percent favored, 39 percent opposed.

But when given more information, De Francis said, the percentage of those in favor soared.

When informed that tracks in Delaware and West Virginia have slots, and that if Maryland had them they'd generate an estimated $200 million a year in tax revenue for education, law-enforcement, safety, cities and counties, the percentages broke down this way: 43 percent strongly favored, 31 percent somewhat favored, 9 percent somewhat opposed, 13 percent strongly opposed. Or 74 percent favored, 24 percent opposed.

So what now, Joe? Will it be Gov. Parris N. Glendening or leading Republican challenger Ellen R. Sauerbrey?

"We're going to support people who support horse racing," De Francis said. "Sauerbrey has a long record of supporting the industry."

But what about Glendening's signing of bills the past two years that provided the horse racing industry about $16.5 million in aid?

"The governor signed the bills, but remember, especially the first year, the impetus for those bills came from the General Assembly," De Francis said.

And, anyway, he said, the legislators who pushed the bills intended them as "life preservers. They're certainly not the $75 million that slots in Delaware and West Virginia have generated for purses."

Does De Francis fear that his soured relationship with Glendening could hurt the horse racing industry if Glendening is re-elected?

"Whatever personal disagreements that he and I would have, both over the slots issue and my support for Mrs. Rehrmann, I would hope he wouldn't use that to extract retribution on an industry that's such an important part of the economy of our state," De Francis said.

Horsemen undecided

Rehrmann's exit sent no shock waves through the Thoroughbred Breeders and Horsemen's Political Action Committee, said Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

The breeders and horsemen's groups haven't yet decided which candidates to support with their PAC money, much of which was raised at a recent crab feast at Timonium.

But Wright made this clear: "The breeders and horsemen were not involved in the Rehrmann candidacy at all. That was the position of Joe De Francis and the people around him at the racetrack."

Help in wake of fire

Dennis Dowd, president of Bally's Ocean Downs, says nearly $5,000 has been raised for the owners of the five Standardbreds that perished in the fire July 20 at the track. Most of that came from the track itself, which donated about $3,500 from its share of one race last week.

Don Jacobs, a driver and trainer, was given a weekend in Atlantic City by the Hilton Hotel Corp. for his efforts at trying to save the horses. He suffered a burned right foot trying to kick down a hot metal gate, Dowd said.

Feather in Keller's cap

Charlie Keller III of Yankeeland Farms in Frederick says, "Our feet are finally back on the ground." Muscles Yankee, born and raised at the farm, won last weekend's $1 million Hambletonian at the Meadowlands.

"We've been in the business more than 40 years, and we sell stakes horses every year," Keller said. "We've won a lot of really nice races, but we'd never won the Hambletonian. I guess that adds another little bit of credibility to our operation."

More Colonial trouble


Trouble is brewing, as it always seems to do, at Colonial Downs.

De Francis says the Maryland Jockey Club will not pay for a van to transport horses from the Maryland tracks to the track in southern Virginia, slated to open Sept. 7. Last year, De Francis said, the daily service -- free to horsemen -- cost the Maryland Jockey Club $85,000 and Colonial Downs $50,000.

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