Jacobs tough down stretch

Horse racing: Pimlico and Laurel general counsel Martin Jacobs has been a major player on the state racing scene for two decades.

Horse Racing

January 29, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Accusations and insults were flying like clumps of muddy hay at the Maryland Racing Commission's four-hour meeting last week.

At the center of the swirl stood Martin Jacobs, a 6-foot-tall, balding attorney with a conservative bearing. He was reading aloud a Maryland statute in his Brooklyn-tinged accent, enraging commissioners who were in no mood for a lecture on the law.

A behind-the scenes force in the state's horse racing scene for more than two decades, Jacobs, 61, has advised several of the outsized personalities who have shaped the sport while drawing little attention to himself. His title - general counsel and treasurer of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course - betrays little of the influence he holds as a part-owner and the longest-tenured top executive of the state's major tracks.

But within the ailing industry, he is well-known for his close relationship with Joe De Francis, the president and managing partner of the tracks, and for his tenacious representation of the Maryland Jockey Club.

"Marty is a central player and a very influential player. ... Joe relies very heavily on Marty's advice," said Alan Foreman, the lawyer for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman's Association and a national leader in the movement to revive racing.

That has earned Jacobs both the respect and enmity of various factions of the racing community. Even his foes concede Jacobs is a highly principled man and a brilliant attorney with a talent for crafting contracts advantageous to his clients.

But others think that's a problem with Maryland's slumping racetracks: Its chiefs appear to pay more attention to legalities than to fans, horse owners and regulators. Last year, angry lawmakers cut off subsidies, races had to be dropped, profits and purses have shrunk, and betting is stagnant.

Inevitably, Jacobs gets some of the blame.

"You wouldn't talk to Marty about handicapping a race. You wouldn't talk to Marty about breeding a horse," said Bob Manfuso, a one-time part-owner of the tracks with Jacobs who thinks current management has insufficient enthusiasm for the sport or its fans.

"Marty is a tough, tough attorney and he gets right to the line. If you have a contract with Jacobs, you better be sure you've crossed your t's and dotted your i's," said Manfuso, who relinquished his stake in the tracks to De Francis and Jacobs in a messy legal fight.

Jacobs acknowledges he is no handicapper, breeder or even track operator. But that is not his job, he said.

"I see my role as keeping the business on track and overcoming adversity as it comes up," Jacobs said.

He notes that the last racing commission meeting was the first in 20 years in which he invoked the law the way he did.

"It is my obligation to my client to raise issues that might be distasteful," he said. "I'm not known for being a shrinking violet."

One of the commissioners who has frequently been at odds with the tracks' management, John Franzone, said the tactic was counterproductive. The commission had intentionally left unsettled the issue of race schedules beyond the statutory December deadline to give the tracks time to reach agreement with the horsemen and others on when Maryland racing would shift to an affiliated track in Virginia.

Franzone said he was angered that the tracks refused to budge on the racing dates, citing arcane legal authority.

"I just thought it was an improper thing to have done," he said. "There is a pattern there."

Saying he always prefers compromise to conflict, Jacobs said one may emerge later this week at meetings planned with the horsemen. "I think racing is going through a trying period and I think it is essential that the industry will pull together and have all its oars in the water. I'm a great believer that the whole is greater than the parts," he said.

Foreman agrees, but said he's never seen the local racing industry as fractious as it is now. He blames some of that on track management, though not just Jacobs.

"In my dialogues with Marty, he is always trying to find middle ground. He tries to find solutions," said Foreman, who represents horse owners and trainers in matters involving the tracks.

However, said Foreman, when disagreements arise, "He can be very difficult."

Jacobs came to racetrack management via Frank De Francis, a horse owner and former state secretary of economic development who is credited with reinvigorating racing in the 1980s. De Francis, who died in 1989, became involved in track management with the purchase of a now defunct Maryland harness track in 1980 - a deal negotiated by his friend, Marty Jacobs, who also invested in the venture.

Jacobs remained by Frank De Francis' side as he acquired control of the state's two main thoroughbred tracks, Laurel in 1984 and Pimlico in 1986. Jacobs, too, invested in the tracks and today owns 14 percent of Laurel and 10 percent of Pimlico. De Francis' children, Joe and Karin, also hold stakes.

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