De Francis fires back at partners Manfusos' lawsuit escalates track feud


LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The gloves have come off in a feud that has been brewing for the past two years among the owners of Maryland's two major thoroughbred tracks.

Joe De Francis, president of Pimlico and Laurel race courses, stood in the paddock of Churchill Downs yesterday and for the first time publicly lambasted John A. "Tom" and Bob Manfuso, his partners in the ownership of the two operations.

De Francis said the Manfusos "make me sick to my stomach and don't care a whit about Maryland racing."

The Manfuso brothers filed suit in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Wednesday against De Francis and Martin Jacobs, the tracks' chief counsel and a part owner.

The Manfusos allege, among other things, that De Francis used profits from the Maryland tracks to finance a racing venture in Texas and used corporate credit cards for personal expenses.

The suit apparently is the opening salvo in a dispute that may not be resolved until October 1993, when a buyout option in the ownership agreement between the three men comes due.

"I have been careful never to say anything about the Manfusos before," said De Francis, here for the running of the Kentucky Derby.

"But enough is enough. Their claims are scurrilous and outrageous and totally without merit. They act like spoiled little children. If they can't be the quarterback in the game, then they don't want to play.

"The timing of the lawsuit, right before the Triple Crown when the eyes of the whole racing world are on us, is meant to embarrass Marty and myself. It is also an attempt to throw a monkey wrench into the track in Texas."

De Francis is a consultant for the Lone Star Jockey Club, a Dallas-based corporation that has applied for a license to build a track in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The suit alleges that he spent $33,000 in profits from the Baltimore tracks on lobbying efforts in Texas.

But Bob Manfuso, who is also at Churchill Downs to attend his first Kentucky Derby, said the lawsuit is an attempt "to find out what's going on at Pimlico and Laurel. We want to see if there is a problem and what it is. We have aired our concerns in terms of the normal process [board meetings], but have gotten no satisfaction."

Manfuso added that "I understand the suit has not been well-received [by De Francis], but we think it's entirely appropriate."

Manfuso also said that Jim Mango, general manager at the Maryland tracks, has been brought into the Lone Star group in a managerial capacity. "We don't think that's the right thing for a key employee at Pimlico and Laurel to do, especially when there are so many problems confronting Maryland racing and when business is down between 7 and 8 percent."

De Francis said that Bob Manfuso is actively pursuing a role with Midpointe Racing Inc., an R.D. Hubbard-controlled company that Lone Star's chief rival in gaining the permit to build the Dallas track.

The fight between the two sides has been developing since De Francis assumed control of the tracks after the death of his father, Frank De Francis, in August 1989.

Joe De Francis said his father had told him before his death to "either sell the tracks or run them." His decision to assume control of the two tracks dismayed the Manfusos, Joe De Francis said. The brothers retired from active management at Pimlico and Laurel last spring but are still part owners.

In the suit, the Manfusos demand that they be allowed to examine the financial records of the two tracks. They accuse De Francis, who the suit says receives a compensation package worth about $700,000 a year, of allowing the racetracks to slip into decline "while he devoted an increasing amount of time in an attempt to further his and Jacobs' private interests in Texas horse racing."

The suit also charges that De Francis and Lynda O'Dea, a vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club and consultant to the tracks, charged personal expenses to Laurel and Pimlico and "neither repaid those expenditures for a period of years."

The Manfusos ask the court to prevent De Francis from diverting any more funds to his Texas interests and to force De Francis to reimburse Pimlico and Laurel accounts for funds that already have been spent.

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