Horse industry may cut De Francis' rein

New study likely to back ending his 10-year hold

February 21, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

As Joe De Francis' standing in Annapolis has plummeted because of his unrestrained support of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's opponents in last year's gubernatorial campaign, his stock has plunged within the horse-racing community.

Frustrations with De Francis' decade-long stewardship of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park have become so pronounced that many who had stuck by him are now saying Maryland might be better off if his tracks were in someone else's hands or if the state built a new track and let someone else run it.

The first tentative steps toward that end -- what could become a sweeping reconfiguration of the state's racing landscape -- have been taken.

Last summer, as De Francis plowed ahead in his fight against Glendening's re-election, the governor proposed the idea of building a new horse track. Several months earlier, the state study commission on horse racing, as part of its recommendations of aid for the industry, had suggested looking into the prospect of a new track and creating a public-private partnership to manage it.

The second incarnation of that commission, under its Glendening-appointed chairman Stuart S. Janney III, is expected to release its report to the governor this week. One of its recommendations will likely be the repeal of an old, obscure law that grants the corporations that De Francis controls a virtual monopoly on thoroughbredracing in Maryland.

"I'd like to see the state of Maryland build its own racetrack and for the state of Maryland to run it," said C. Frank Hopkins, a member of the racing commission and longtime horse breeder and owner. "There's a growing feeling among horse people that this is the best way out."

No one, not even De Francis' harshest critics, suggests that construction of a new track is imminent -- or even inevitable. The political hurdles to overcome would be significant.

But what is clear is that exasperation with De Francis' political missteps, his drum-beating for slots and what many see as ineffectual management has spread throughout the industry and threatens to undermine his stronghold on Maryland racing.

`Erosion of confidence'

"His actions over the last three years indicate he has concluded that other forms of gambling are the only way he can build the value of his business," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "There's been a gradual erosion of confidence, but I think the whole slots thing and how he handled himself was the last straw. What was teetering on the edge has gone over the cliff."

Criticism of De Francis is nothing new.

Shortly after he became majority owner of the state's two major thoroughbred tracks upon the death of his father in 1989, he and his father's partners, the brothers Bob and Tommy Manfuso, conducted a nasty, lengthy and public divorce. Ever since, a segment of the racing community could be counted on to bash De Francis at every opportunity.

But lately, the criticism has not only become more pervasive but also more public. For the first time, leaders of horsemen's and breeders' groups are saying on the record what had been confined to private discourse.

"When the leader of the industry takes on a sitting governor and loses, we all lose," said Alan Foreman, lawyer for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "That has created tremendous anxiety in the industry. That's why this is boiling to the surface now."

Fear of being left behind

Another reason is that Marylanders fear they're being left behind as horse racing nationally surges ahead.

Attendance and wagering have increased sharply at many tracks. Racing is gaining more exposure than ever on TV. Under the leadership of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the sport's year-old "league office," racing insiders for the first time in years feel a sense of optimism.

Yet at Pimlico and Laurel Park, attendance in 1998 remained constant from the year before. Betting increased only slightly. The state's thoroughbred tracks and training centers continue to deteriorate. Near-constant racing fails to generate newfound excitement. And racetrack management, as its only apparent strategy for survival, replays its song for slots.

"It appears to be slots or nothing with them," Foreman said. "It's just a very stagnant situation. That's where the talk about getting new management in here comes from. The business needs to be reinvigorated."

Although De Francis acknowledged the mounting criticism in a recent interview, he defended his actions not only during the gubernatorial campaign but also during his 10 years at the helm.

Asked whether he has considered or would consider selling Pimlico and Laurel Park, he said:

"My dad had a saying, and that was, `Everything in life I have is for sale except my family.' In response to that question I would offer that saying. In the same breath, I'm not interested in selling them. The tracks are not for sale."

Lobbying for slots

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