Era hits finish line

Deal cuts ties between De Francis family, racing

September 25, 2007|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

Frank De Francis found horse racing as a teenager, happening upon it at a county fair with his father. Its allure was so potent that the future owner of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park compared the experience to being bitten by a tsetse fly.

In the years after his unexpected death in 1989, his son, Joe, and daughter, Karin, tried to breathe life into a declining Maryland racing industry by winning approval for slot machines at Pimlico and Laurel.

They never succeeded, and, yesterday, the family's formal ties to Maryland racing were all but severed when Magna Entertainment Corp. paid $18.3 million to buy the remainder of the Maryland Jockey Club, which controls the tracks.

So passed the chief Maryland racing dynasty of the past 23 years.

"On the one hand, I'm extremely proud of what we've accomplished," said Joe De Francis, who will continue as a Magna board member. "On the other end of the spectrum, to watch what has happened to the industry in the last eight or nine years, as we've watched slots become entrenched in neighboring states, has been a tremendously difficult and frustrating experience."

In his 18 years leading the Maryland Jockey Club, De Francis kept the company profitable, largely by expanding simulcast betting. Industry veterans also credit him with bringing in sharp executives, such as Lou Raffetto, adding turf tracks at Laurel and negotiating the Magna deal, which placed greater financial muscle behind Maryland racing.

Despite such moves, De Francis watched the state's proud racing history slip further and further into the past.

He began warning more than a decade ago that if Maryland did not legalize slot machines at the tracks, its rich connections to the racing industry would wither and the Preakness could move to another state.

The signature race has remained at Pimlico, and officials say it's the main reason the venerable track has remained profitable. But other signs are dire.

Crowds have dwindled for lower-profile races at Pimlico and Laurel. Trainers have departed for greater prize money in Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Maryland officials have canceled races such as the Pimlico Special because of a lack of funding for purses. Owners have uprooted their breeding operations in favor of slot-funded incentive programs in Pennsylvania and other states. The number of foals born and registered in Maryland dropped by a third between 2000 and last year.

Annapolis hurdle

"Joe knew the problem and he grasped the solution, but he could never convince the people in Annapolis," said Alvin Akman, a former board member at the Maryland Racing Commission and horse owner for more than 40 years. "His biggest accomplishment was just surviving in an era when other tracks were moving forward and we couldn't."

Alan Foreman, a Columbia-based lawyer who works with the racing industry, said that without revenue from slots, De Francis could never improve the tracks as much as he would have liked. Pimlico, built in 1870, has received unwanted attention in recent years for its declining condition.

"Joe saw the picture, but he could never close the deal," Foreman said. "His reputation in the industry is that he was very difficult to negotiate with, and I think that fundamentally that came down to a lack of resources."

Many longtime trainers and horse owners regarded Frank De Francis, who along with the Manfuso brothers, John (Tommy) and Robert, bought Laurel in 1984 and Pimlico in 1986, as a visionary manager of tracks and a man of immense personal warmth.

"He shook things up in a good way," said Lucy Acton, editor of Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred. "He had a real passion for the business and so many innovative ideas. It was a really exciting time when he bought the tracks."

The elder De Francis didn't have deep ties to the horse industry, but quickly charmed those who did. "Joe's dad would walk around the grandstand, literally walk around, and talk to bettors," Akman recalled. "He just had a low-key attitude that allowed him to talk with the $2 bettor as easily as the big shot in Annapolis."

"He's probably one of the best promoters this game has ever had," said Billy Boniface, whose family has long trained and raced horses out of Bonita Farm in Darlington.

Frank De Francis ordered numerous physical improvements to the tracks, promoted big-event races and racing on Sundays, improved customer service and negotiated favorable tax rates with state lawmakers.

"I never saw anybody who could go to Annapolis and get more done," said Chick Lang, longtime Pimlico general manager.

Frank De Francis died from the effects of a heart attack at age 62.

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