Hope cautiously rising for end of dark days at Pimlico track

State, horse industry await De Francis' plan to reinvigorate racing

May 14, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The end seemed near when the power failed at Pimlico last year on Preakness Day.

The atmosphere was surreal, ghostlike, as patrons wandered in the dark, sweltered in the heat and cursed the ancient, deteriorating home of the state's great sporting event.

It wasn't hard to imagine that this was Pimlico's last gasp, that the historic palace of racing had become little more than a tomb for the memory of Secretariat, Citation and Man o' War.

But one year later, it's clear that the degradation of that Preakness fiasco has given rise to cautious new hope not only for the survival of Pimlico, but also its resurgence as a respected, if not revered, setting for the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

Although the year was fraught with political turmoil and industrywide bickering, the result is this: Joe De Francis and the Maryland Jockey Club are devising a plan to refurbish Pimlico and Laurel Park, enhance the marketing and promotion of racing in Maryland and improve customer service.

This is a critical juncture for De Francis, head of the company that owns and operates Pimlico, Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center. His opposition to Gov. Parris N. Glendening and persistent campaign for slot machines -- now a thing of the past, De Francis said -- generated harsh criticism inside and outside the racing industry.

Many said the state's major thoroughbred tracks, after 10 years with De Francis at the helm, would be better off in other hands.

This is De Francis' chance, perhaps his last chance, to resurrect Maryland racing and lead it ambitiously into the 21st century.

"The ball's definitely in Joe's court," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, an influential Democrat whose district includes Pimlico. "But the lessons of history are that we haven't had really great cooperation from him. We've had a lot of promises.

"I hope this is a turning point, because there's only one way to go from here, and that's up. If he does it, fine, he can be the owner as long as he wants. But if he doesn't, then sell it and let somebody else do it."

De Francis agreed to come up with this plan only at the behest of Glendening. De Francis must submit the plan by June 15 and the governor and leading legislators must approve it before the racing industry -- thoroughbred and Standardbred -- will receive its $10 million state grant for purses.

Although the plan wasn't De Francis' idea, he seems to be reveling in its preparation. He and other Maryland Jockey Club officials have begun presenting it to community groups and industry and political leaders -- all of whom must embrace the plan if it is to achieve its broadest goal of uniting the industry.

However, De Francis said he can reveal little about it at this point, one month before its submission deadline.

`Preliminary thoughts'

"I would love to go into all kinds of specifics and tell you exactly what we're planning to do, because I'm very excited about it," De Francis said. "But until we finish our meetings with the community and until we touch base with all the various stakeholders who have an interest in this, there really is no plan.

"What there is is our preliminary thoughts on the direction we'd like to head in."

Those thoughts, De Francis said, focus largely on Pimlico and its significant role in the city, the state and the racing firmament. A sizable portion, he said, will deal with Pimlico as the foundation for the future of Maryland racing.

"This facility and its place in racing lore is priceless," De Francis said. "We're going to do everything that we possibly can to make everyone in Maryland proud to be a Marylander when the eyes of the sporting world focus on this facility on the third Saturday in May."

De Francis declined to say how much money he was willing to spend. Back when he coveted slots, he produced a stunning master plan for the refurbishment of Pimlico that would have cost more than $100 million.

That plan serves as the smorgasbord from which the elements of this scaled-down version are being selected. Likely to be included are the demolition of all barns behind the Pimlico grandstand, the construction of new barns on the Pimlico backstretch, a primary entrance off Northern Parkway, extensive landscaping and the construction of a paddock and gardens behind the grandstand.

"We're going to spend as much of our private funds as we possibly can," De Francis said. "To the extent that either the city or the state or both are willing to work with us to do more, we'll be delighted to work with them in every way reasonably possible to take this redevelopment to the highest possible level."

Some legislative leaders say they might be willing to help once they see the plan and are convinced that De Francis is making a good-faith effort to help himself.

`The way of the steamship'

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