De Francis keeps clear of Assembly slots debate

Track figure is absent, but he's a focus anyway

General Assembly

February 13, 2004|By Howard Libit and Greg Garland | Howard Libit and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

As the General Assembly opened public debate this week on expanding legalized gambling, the man whose family has been the face of Maryland horse racing for decades was noticeably missing. And if slots supporters have their way, racing executive Joseph A. De Francis will remain all but invisible in Annapolis for all 90 days of the legislative session.

"No one told me he wasn't coming, but it sure was obvious that he wasn't at the hearing," said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican and slots supporter. "He seems to get a lot of bad press, ... so it was probably a good thing for him not to be there."

Sen. Ulysses Currie was more blunt. "That was a plus," said the Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "Joe De Francis conjures up all the negative things that people associate with racing."

But no matter how hard he tries to stay in the background, the chief executive of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course is sure to see his name thrust into the Assembly's debate by gambling opponents - if for no other reason than to remind lawmakers of the money De Francis could earn if slots are legalized at the tracks.

As part of the deal to sell majority ownership to Magna Entertainment Corp., De Francis and former minority owners of the Maryland Jockey Club would share in the profits if either of the two tracks gets slots.

A Magna executive says De Francis is focused on operating the tracks and another company official is working with lawmakers on the slots issue. De Francis did not respond to requests for an interview.

"Joe was attending to the serious business of running our racing enterprises," said Paul Micucci, executive vice president of Magna. Micucci said he has assumed the lead role in dealing with slots because that is his area of expertise.

Privately, sources in the racing industry and in the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. say De Francis has become such a target of criticism that they'd prefer to keep him as far from the spotlight as possible.

Magna's public image is important because of the hurdle it faces in securing slots licenses at both of its Maryland tracks.

"The fact that Magna and Joe De Francis have two tracks was fortuitous," Ehrlich told WBAL Radio yesterday. "If there is a slots bill, and I hope there is but there is no guarantee, it's more likely than not that there will be language in there to the effect that owners will be given one license. ... If you are Pimlico, that may be a death knell."

While De Francis stayed away, Maryland's other prominent track owner, William Rickman Jr., testified at Wednesday's committee hearing and is engaging in the legislature's slots debate. Rickman owns Delaware Park, which has slot machines, as well as Ocean Downs on the Eastern Shore. He plans to build a track in Allegany County that the governor's bill identifies as one of six sites for slots.

Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the owners of Pimlico and Laurel Park clearly have concluded they're better off if De Francis stays in the background.

"If Joe's returning to the racetrack and allowing the industry to move forward on slots legislation, then that's great," he said. "Let's take the focus off of Joe and let's try to get a bill passed that works for the entire racing industry. We're at a critical juncture. We need to focus all of our energies on trying to get a very good bill passed. ... Otherwise, we're at a point where the industry could collapse."

Wayne Wright, executive director of the horsemen's association, said that while De Francis might not be as visible, he remains influential. "It seems obvious to me that Joe De Francis still has influence from the way the bill looked last year and the way in which the bill evolved this year," Wright said.

Wright's group and others have said that track owners receive too much from the proposal and that the share of slots proceeds devoted to purses and horse breeding falls short of what is needed to save Maryland's racing industry.

Disagreements and infighting have plagued the horse industry in recent years, particularly since De Francis and his sister took over running the state's two leading tracks upon the death of their father in 1989.

Though he didn't refer specifically to De Francis, Ehrlich's testimony before the Senate committee called for better cooperation. "The industry has got to get it together," the governor said. "The history is not positive."

At the start of the 2003 debate, the push for slots fell under an ethical cloud after reports surfaced that De Francis had donated $225,000 to a national political committee controlled by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, one of the legislature's leading slots proponents.

A state probe ended in January without finding any violations of Maryland election laws. An FBI "preliminary inquiry" into Miller's fund-raising activities apparently is continuing.

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