De Francis tally sheet is tough to handicap

Owner: Under Joseph's helm, state tracks exceeded big-event records, if not daily expectations.

July 16, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

When he announced in 1989 that he was taking over the management of the Maryland Jockey Club from his recently deceased father, even his new partners were surprised: Joseph A. De Francis had shown little interest in running a pair of major racetracks.

But he hung in, fought off challenges, and won himself a spot in the state's long history of thoroughbred racing. Now, as he prepares to relinquish the majority ownership - but not management - of the company that operates Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, De Francis turns over the books with a mixed record.

He has kept the tracks afloat, pared their debt and overseen new records in attendance and betting from Pimlico's premier event, the Preakness. But by most standards, day-to-day racing in the state has declined, and Maryland has lost its status as a national innovator and leader as the industry consolidated elsewhere.

Gone is talk of the "Maryland Miracle," and the heady optimism that marked his father's five years running Laurel and three years running Pimlico. Frank De Francis used his charisma and high-level connections to get state taxes cut on racing and to assemble a virtual monopoly on thoroughbred racing in the state. He also invested in the tracks, adding "sports palaces" that foresaw the coming bonanza in betting on out-of-state races via "simulcasts."

Upon their father's death, Joseph De Francis, along with his sister, Karin De Francis, who became a vice president, oversaw the transition to full-card simulcasting. They opened a network of off-track betting facilities that failed to live up to expectations. Their company missed the opportunity to create a home-grown telephone-wagering operation and instead contracted with national phone-betting services.

De Francis tried, but failed, to open a track in Texas. However, he persuaded Virginia horsemen to open one in cooperation - rather than competition - with Maryland's, something even his detractors view as a victory for Maryland.

Under their regime, the Washington D.C. International, an acclaimed stakes race, died, while the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash, one of the nation's top sprints, was born.

A former Washington lawyer, Joseph De Francis seems to relish a fight and has been battling one faction or another during his tenure. Relations with key players, from horse owners to the State House, have suffered.

"If I were going to grade him, I would say a C-plus," said John Mosner, a retired banker who served on the Maryland Racing Commission for eight years and was its chairman when De Francis took over.

Staying afloat

Several racetracks went out of business over the past 13 years, and De Francis deserves credit for keeping his open and the horses running nearly year-round, Mosner said.

"He inherited a $40 million debt on the tracks and servicing that chews up a lot of your income," Mosner said.

Since 1989, attendance at the two tracks has fallen 40 percent. In-state betting on Maryland races has fallen 13 percent, but total wagering has more than doubled due to the growth of simulcasting. De Francis joined with other tracks to make Pimlico and Laurel races available nationally on the Television Games Network, a cable and satellite service.

Alan Foreman, an attorney active with various national racing organizations and chairman of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, agreed that De Francis has endured a difficult environment for racing. But some of the problems, especially what turned out to be the disastrous endorsement of a Republican challenger who lost to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, have been of his own making.

"His political problems translated into problems for the industry," Foreman said.

He said De Francis seemed to have settled on a strategy of waiting for the state to bail out the industry, chiefly by legalizing slot machine gaming at the tracks - something that hasn't come to pass.

"Joe had a penchant for announcing grandiose plans that he never followed through with," Foreman said. "I think the state government threw up its hands and said the industry has not done enough to help itself."

Slots up, ambience down

Foreman isn't sure anyone could have done much about the emergence of competitors, chiefly Delaware Park, which won the right to operate slot machines and devote some of the money to improving racing. Purses, the winnings paid to top finishing horses in a race, grew sharply at Delaware and West Virginia tracks with slots, but stagnated in Maryland.

But, he said, "There's been an overall decline in atmosphere."

"He's a bright guy and I consider him a friend, but he's not the kind of guy who likes to walk through the grandstand and listen to people," he said.

Joseph and Karin De Francis will remain in management positions and own about 49 percent of the voting stock, for at least the next five years. Both said yesterday that they welcomed the sale as the opportunity to put into practice dreams they have had but were unable to afford.

"This is the beginning of the De Francis era," said Joseph De Francis. "For the first time, we have partners who share our vision of racing and have international resources."

A look at the books

The Maryland Jockey Club, controlled by Joseph A. and Karin De Francis since 1989, has shown a profit for the past eight years.

Year......Pimlico......Laurel......Combined

1988...$1,600,000...-67,744...$1,532,256

1989...$ 35,949...-370,312...-334,363

1990...- 483,972...-365,086...-849,058

1991...- 500,597...-358,702...-859,299

1992...- 465,644...-284,539...-750,183

1993...- 3,769,274...-3,456,918...-7,226,192

1994...$1,800,000...-609,894...$1,190,106

1995...$2,525,216...$1,630,823...$4,156,039

1996...$1,925,648...- 205,574...$1,720,074

1997...$1,189,094...$707,545...$1,896,639

1998...$219,732...- 83,185...$136,547

1999...$1,950,000...- 518,723...$1,431,277

2000...$1,966,858...-1,295,903...$670,955

2001...$3,881,060...-2,388,919...$1,492,141

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