"The reality is, what you see isn't what you get," said Alan Foreman, a lawyer who represents thoroughbred trainers and horse owners and has dealt with De Francis for a dozen years. "And that's every time. After a while that gets a little old."
At the eye of the storm is Joe De Francis, 47, a lawyer who also holds a business degree from UCLA and a political science degree from Stanford. He practiced law in the District of Columbia, specializing in mergers and acquisitions. As president of the Maryland tracks, he was paid a $350,000 salary last year.
As a racetrack executive, he describes his management philosophy as hiring the best people possible and then getting out of the way so they can achieve. He passionately declares his company's devotion to racing and to Maryland.
"We have not paid out one dime in dividends or profit distribution or other return on equity," said De Francis. "We have plowed every penny this industry generates back into the business, trying to make it grow. That's something I'm damn proud of."
His intensity in private contrasts sharply with his restraint in public. At meetings and hearings, De Francis seldom responds when legislators or horsemen criticize the Maryland Jockey Club. Usually he listens impassively or tries to lighten the moment with a smile or a remark.
In his own defense
In an interview, De Francis vigorously defended his performance. Despite increasing competition, whether from football and baseball stadiums downtown or from slot machines at nearby tracks, the Maryland Jockey Club has maintained year-round racing in Maryland, kept open its two tracks and its training center at Bowie, and avoided widespread layoffs, he says.
De Francis gives himself a mere "C" grade for building an adequate off-track betting system in Maryland. But he says his company has continually tried to upgrade its aging tracks. He challenges anyone to tour Churchill Downs, hallowed home in Louisville of the Kentucky Derby, and then tour his much-maligned Pimlico. He says Pimlico will emerge favorably in the comparison.
One upgrade completed in recent years at both Pimlico and Laurel was the construction of well-appointed simulcast betting areas with monitors that show races at other tracks.
De Francis calls Maryland Jockey Club marketing "the favorite whipping boy" of critics but says his company's marketing has been "outstanding." He points to television ads that won national awards, a Preakness promotional film that won an Eclipse Award and the Pony Pals, a club for youngsters who will eventually, the idea goes, become racing fans. He says the company is spending about $150,000 for a consultant to help improve customer service.
For those initiatives he credits his sister Karin, a 43-year-old lawyer and the company's senior vice president of public relations and marketing.
She was a deputy district attorney in Orange County, Calif., at the time of her father's death in 1989. She and her husband moved to Maryland the next year. She took over managing her father's 35 thoroughbreds, had three children and, in 1995, joined her elder brother in running their tracks.
Joe De Francis sees his role as extending beyond the company as he tries to promote unity among the disparate factions in Maryland racing. He says the industry needs help, and that whether it is in the form of revenue from slot machines or some other source, aid will have to come from Annapolis.
"It is going to take a collaborative effort on the part of the key constituents that comprise Maryland racing," he said. "As the CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, I obviously have a significant responsibility to make sure that the Maryland Jockey Club carries its weight in this coalition.
"But I believe more in leading by consensus than by leading by unilateral dictate. We need the support and cooperation of the other players in the industry."
He acknowledges having made mistakes. He says that his aggressive support for Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey during the 1998 gubernatorial election hurt his standing in Annapolis and within the racing industry. She had left open the possibility of supporting slots while Glendening adamantly opposed them.
De Francis has not preached about his desire for slot machines since making peace with Glendening. He agreed to keep quiet in return for the governor's support for other measures benefiting racing.
"My silence on the subject hasn't changed the economic realities of what's happening in Delaware and West Virginia," De Francis said. "That continues to have a devastating impact on our business."
De Francis says that the Maryland Jockey Club will not lead a crusade for slots but would participate in any effort that emerges within the racing industry. Its usually fractious segments say slots have become an economic necessity.
But some in the industry say that De Francis' strategy is too dependent on the possibility of slots.