The best spin you can give Frank Stronach is that he has good intentions but makes bad deals with inappropriate partners — people who seem more interested in slot-machine riches than in the thoroughbred racing he loves.
Stronach then spent years trying to renegotiate the deal — a strange focus for someone who kept saying horse racing didn't need slots. Meanwhile, the tracks kept losing their clientele as legislation enabling slots languished. Ultimately Stronach even botched the application to put slots at Laurel.
Now he has another deal to regret. This year he brought on casino operator Penn National Gaming as co-owner of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates the tracks.
In a new attempt to get slots for Laurel, Penn bankrolled an expensive campaign to persuade voters to reject a slots project at Arundel Mills mall. That could have cleared the way for the track to win the Anne Arundel County slots license.
But Penn and the Jockey Club lost. Arundel Mills slots developer David Cordish won. And Penn wasted no time in trying to cut its losses.
Shortly after the vote, Stronach said he would keep both Laurel and Pimlico open in 2011 and run about the same number of meets as this year. Penn immediately pushed back, saying it had been caught "off guard" by his comments and instead supported previous plans to sharply reduce live racing at the tracks.
Penn seems to have prevailed, despite its status as the Jockey Club's junior partner. And Stronach seems to have gone back on his promise to Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, to run a full schedule next year.
On Monday, the Jockey Club presented the Maryland Racing Commission with a parody of a 2011 schedule, proposing to race 17 days at Laurel and 30 days at Pimlico around the time of the Preakness, part of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown. That's only about a third of the live-racing days run this year at the tracks.
So Penn seems a little less "committed to Maryland racing" than Dennis Mills, then-chief executive of Stronach's MI Developments, suggested when the partnership was announced in May.
What Penn was committed to were slots profits. Now that they aren't immediately forthcoming, Penn is changing its tune. Stronach hasn't commented on the new plan. Perhaps Penn impressed upon him the need to cut costs and create new drama about the future of Maryland racing.
The game plan for more than a decade has been to hold the industry hostage in return for slots proceeds. So what if Cordish won the only Anne Arundel slots license, there is no provision for slots at Pimlico, and most of the slots proceeds go into racing purses, not to track operators? The legislature convenes in January. Hope and lobbying spring eternal.
Meanwhile, expect a compromise on next year's racing schedule. The racing commission rejected the 47-day plan. The Jockey Club will probably come back with live-racing calendar of more than 50 days but fewer than 100.
De Francis rejects my contention that slots and racing are separate. Ever since tracks in Delaware and West Virginia installed slots and began drawing Maryland patrons, he says, slots have been crucial for Maryland racing's future.
"The simple economic reality is that there is an overwhelming public demand for this kind of gaming," he said in an interview. "And when your competitors have it and you don't …forget it. It's game over."
But slots are here. The Arundel Mills casino and others will eventually generate tens of millions in purse money for Laurel and Pimlico. That was the plan all along — to revive racing with slots revenue no matter where it was generated.
That Stronach won't go along with it, that he chooses collaborators who fight it, that he keeps breaking promises — it all makes you wonder how good his intentions are, after all. Maybe Maryland racing's most inappropriate partner is Frank Stronach.