De Francis: Takeout hike critical

Passage is pitched in $60 million plan

July 28, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Joe De Francis said yesterday that if the General Assembly doesn't approve a key financing element of his $60 million improvement plan for Maryland racing, "then we have a problem."

De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, made the comment while briefing the Maryland Racing Commission on the plan. De Francis has proposed funding $27.5 million of the $60 million by raising the takeout on certain wagers by 1.5 percent.

Takeout is the amount withheld from each bet. It goes to state taxes, purses and track owners. Increasing the takeout can be done only with legislative approval.

C. Frank Hopkins, a member of the racing commission, asked De Francis what happens if he doesn't get the 1.5 percent increase.

Unless someone comes up with an alternative funding plan, De Francis said: "Then we have a problem. We would have to revise the plan and remove $27.5 million of the cost."

De Francis said the Maryland Jockey Club has committed $32.5 million to the plan. "This is as far as we can stretch the available resources of the company," he said.

The five-year plan calls for extensive renovations at Pimlico and Laurel Park, increases in marketing and promotion, and upgrades and expansion of the state's off-track-betting network.

Although commissioners asked questions about details, funding and timing, they generally seemed pleased with the plan.

"I feel very enthusiastic and optimistic," said commissioner John P. McDaniel. "It's one of the most creative plans I have seen in the eight or 10 years I've been around."

After his presentation, De Francis acknowledged in an interview with The Sun that he understands the importance of getting started quickly on implementing the plan. He acknowledged that the prospects for support in Annapolis will increase if he can demonstrate substantial progress by the January start of the legislative session.

By then, he said, he hopes to show progress in four areas.

One, the revenue-sharing plan between the Maryland Jockey Club and Rosecroft Raceway (and their horsemen and breeders' groups) will have been implemented. The plan divides every dollar bet at Pimlico, Laurel, Rosecroft and the OTBs by 80 percent to the thoroughbred segment and 20 percent to harness.

After more than a year of negotiations, the plan is "done for all intents and purposes," De Francis said. He said he hopes to present the final agreement to the racing commission next month and implement it in mid-October.

Revenue sharing is "the foundation" of the improvement plan, De Francis said. It will allow the Maryland Jockey Club and Rosecroft "to come together in a real partnership to promote pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing."

Two, the jockey club will have begun implementing its enriched marketing program.

Three, it will have begun the infrastructure upgrades that will clear the way for more visible improvements.

Four, the jockey club will have applied for "several" new off-track betting sites in the Washington suburbs and the Baltimore metropolitan area, De Francis said. He said that he and his advisers are close to deciding on specific locations.

In other action, the commission granted Ron Franklin, beset in the past by drug problems, a license to exercise horses at the tracks in the morning. Best known as the jockey of Spectacular Bid, Franklin must pass regular drug tests and remain active in rehabilitation programs, said commission chairman John Franzone.

The commission also heard representatives of jockeys and trainers complain bitterly about the ambulance service at tracks in the morning. Ever since the jockey club hired Dr. James D'Orta's International Medical Corp. to oversee the medical operation, "the service has been unsatisfactory," said Wayne Wright, a spokesman for the horsemen.

John Passero, an MJC executive, pledged to correct the problem. "It will be back to A-1 service very quickly," Passero said.

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