It's make or break time for De Francis' run

May 14, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Is Joe De Francis the right man to lead Maryland racing into the next century?

Let's put it this way: If he is, he's running out of chances to prove it.

He's on the verge of unveiling a long-overdue plan to upgrade Pimlico and improve the Maryland Jockey Club's management, so let's see how that goes.

But even if it goes well, Maryland racing might benefit from a new face and a new direction -- a sale to new ownership, in other words.

De Francis, 44, has operated Pimlico and Laurel since his father's death in 1989, and while the tracks are modestly profitable and De Francis has worked in earnest, few would give him a high grade.

His chances of being the one to reinvigorate Maryland racing are relatively slim, it seems, after his repeated support of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's opponents, his no-contest plea to a charge of making illegal campaign contributions and his failed obsession with slots -- all on top of a reputation for ineffectual management that has dogged him.

It's possible he's a victim of taking bad advice more than anything; he's a smart man who should re-examine his inner circle of decision-makers.

But at this point, the state government does business with him only grudgingly, and many key figures in the state's horse community have lost faith in him.

With that devastating exacta to overcome, he's going to have a hard time manufacturing a renaissance.

"There's been a gradual erosion of confidence," Tim Capps, the executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, told The Sun's Tom Keyser in February. "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."

Ouch.

And that's from a former De Francis loyalist with no ax to grind.

When any CEO in any business faces a lack of confidence that deep, it's hard to dig out.

Not that Maryland racing is a disaster. Handles and purses are at reasonable levels for a mid-sized operation. Wagering is up. A strong simulcasting and off-track betting business, which De Francis instituted, keeps the bottom line in the black.

In his defense, he started his tenure with an enormous debt inherited from his father -- a debt he has paid down, by the way -- and he endured a period in the early '90s when the entire racing industry was experiencing a perilous bust cycle.

But there's optimism in the industry now thanks to increased TV exposure and a new, centralized "league office," and Maryland is missing out. Attendance is stagnant. Pimlico is a substandard facility, possibly beyond help even with the face lift De Francis is planning. There's no widespread sense of excitement other than during the Preakness.

As well, De Francis' stock in Annapolis is at an all-time low, and the window for state-funded sports facilities has closed.

Maryland racing should be more vibrant with as much as it has going for it -- a long tradition, the second jewel of the Triple Crown and strong breeding and racing communities -- but it's stuck in neutral, and lasting change for the better is hard to envision without a change at the top.

What are the chances? De Francis said recently that the tracks weren't for sale, but he also used a quotation from his father: "Everything in life I have is for sale except my family."

A market for racetracks exists, with California's Hollywood Park, Florida's Calder Race Course and Kentucky's Turfway Park having sold in recent months. Churchill Downs is scooping up tracks all over the place. R. D. Hubbard tried to buy Laurel a few years ago. And Orioles owner Peter Angelos is a racing enthusiast with more than enough money to turn things around.

But there's no way De Francis will even consider selling now, because his assets probably would double in value with the addition of slots, and who knows how those controversial winds will blow in the coming years?

So Maryland racing just plods along, caught in the middle with a long list of needs including a new or refurbished track, a new image and a lot more money -- all commodities that many in and out of the industry wonder if De Francis can deliver.

Pumping millions into Pimlico is better than not doing it, but Pimlico probably needs $100 million of work to become a first-rate track instead of a relic.

De Francis doesn't have that kind of money without slots, and the state isn't going to give it to him.

With Glendening furious at him and only reluctantly handing out assistance for purses, it's hard to see things getting better.

De Francis was working at a law firm, with no background in racetrack management, when he took over the tracks, agreeing to his father's death-bed wish to continue the family business.

Some of those who have watched him over the years suggest he wasn't naturally suited to the leading-man role, that he's more comfortable working the phones in the back rooms, where he is more effective.

Whatever, he has tried to make things work, and he'll continue, but the Maryland racing community is almost out of patience, if not already so.

If De Francis can't initiate a major comeback in the near future, it's time for someone else to try.

Race facts

Where: Pimlico Race Course

When: Tomorrow

Post time: 5: 27 p.m.

Gates open: 8: 30 a.m.

Distance: 1 3/16 miles

Purse: $1 million

TV: Chs. 2, 7

Derby winner: Charismatic

Information: 410-542-9400

More on Preakness

After last year's trouble, hope abounds for Pimlico's future. 1a

Silverbulletday out of Preakness, in today's Black-Eyed Susan. 8c

With Menifee favored, trainer Walden leaves the rest to faith. 8c

A look at tomorrow's Preakness field. 8c

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