Customers at Pimlico/Laurel will soon be able to take their ideas or complaints to the top of the tracks' management structure.
Karin De Francis, who owns the facilities with her brother, Joe De Francis, and their partner, Marty Jacobs, is hoping to retool the tracks' approach to customer service and is developing a hospitality department to improve communications with horsemen, patrons and special groups.
How does she see her mission?
"To make as many people as happy as possible," De Francis said. "We are still in the planning stages, but what we hope to accomplish is a complete metamorphosis of our relationship with our fans and the owners and trainers. We're probably talking about a department with four or five employees, including myself."
De Francis draws no paycheck, but she has been taking a more active role in the operation of the tracks in recent months. She works four days a week, although she has three young children.
Fans should start to see long-awaited changes almost immediately when Laurel opens for live racing next week.
The De Francises say they are committed to spending $10 million during the next five years to make improvements to facilities at both tracks.
"We're working from the outside in," said facilities manager Terence Casey, who has helped plan many of the projects, although he is leaving to start his own business on Nov. 1.
The entire outside of the Laurel grandstand, the paddock and outbuildings are being painted in new corporate colors -- white, hunter green and crimson.
"It's a cohesive approach right down to the trash cans," Casey said. In addition, some dramatic improvements are being made to various entrance ways and a mile of board fencing has been built on the property's exterior.
Inside the plant, about 20 areas are being created as video simulcast centers. Banks of five televisions will be at each location. There will be seating, and tables for fans to spread out programs and racing forms.
"This is a continuing project. No way is all this going to be finished by Laurel's opening day [Sept. 27]," Casey said. "For one thing, these buildings are now in use from 6 a.m. to midnight virtually six days a week. There is little down time. In many instances fans are going to see areas with work in progress. But I think they are going to be pleased with the things we're starting to do."
New harness track buyers?
Ted Snell, president of Rosecroft and Delmarva raceways, insists that no changes are imminent in the operation of the state's two harness tracks, even though the owner of the facilities, Fred Weisman, died last Sunday at the age of 82 in Los Angeles.
"There is going to be no change in the operations," Snell said, adding that the tracks are now owned and operated by Weisman's estate. The executors are Coleman Bean, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, and Mitchell Reinschreiber, a Los Angeles financier.
There is little doubt, however, sources say, that Weisman's death will hasten the sale of the two tracks, which have been on the market for the past year and a half.
No one is saying publicly who the new owners might be, but a group headed by amateur harness drivers Ken Weckstein and (( Russ Williams is said to be interested.
Weisman purchased the tracks three years ago for a reported $18 million after former owner Mark Vogel filed for bankruptcy. Since then the tracks have reported losses during the past two years of $4 million.
John H. "Jack" Mosner Jr., a member of the state racing commission, is meeting with Snell this week to discuss the tracks' finances and future.
Valley Crossing goes to Kentucky
The Kentucky Cup, a Blue Grass offshoot of the Maryland Million, has drawn another top Maryland horse to its starting lineup on Saturday.
Not only is Taking Risks bound for Turfway Park, the site of the race, but so is Pimlico-based Valley Crossing, the 1993 Maryland-bred Horse of the Year.
Valley Crossing will be ridden in the stakes by Jerry Bailey, who also has become the regular rider on Concern, another Robert Meyerhoff-owned, Dick Small-trained regular graded stakes competitor.
Unlike the Maryland Million, the Kentucky Cup is not restricted to horses bred or sired in the state. Horses starting in the feature run for a $400,000 purse if Kentucky-bred, $300,000 if foaled out of state.
Pimlico/Laurel plans to spend about $150,000 in television advertising to promote the Maryland Million and International Turf Festival, according to Tim Capps, the tracks' vice president of communications. The tracks also have run a series of recent weekend radio spots trying to lure baseball fans out to the races now that the baseball season is over. . . . Irish Forever, the Roger and Jackie Schipke-owned, Billy Boniface-trained filly who invaded England for the 1,000 Guineas earlier this year, has injured a hind leg and is out of action for the rest of the year. . . . Pimlico/Laurel vice president of racing Lenny Hale has contacted Timonium general manager Mosner about the possibility of operating the Maryland State Fair track as a training center this winter in case Pimlico is shut down. But Mosner doesn't think the track surface could withstand a winter training regimen because it lacks a stone dust base. Some thought also has been given to shutting down the Bowie Training Center for the winter instead of Pimlico, but that move could be prohibited by a state law that mandates that the Bowie facility stay open as a year-round training center.