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Question-and-answer session with Joe De Francis


Will you try to change Governor Glendening's mind about slot machines at racetracks?

"I think I have almost an obligation to. Delaware is doubling the number of machines at its racetracks. The issue of slots at tracks will probably be on the ballot in Pennsylvania the Tuesday after the Preakness. If that referendum passes, we'll then be virtually surrounded -- Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

"And I don't know what more dramatic a picture you can see than in Kentucky with Keeneland, the most historic, traditional, conservative racing organization in North America, partnering with a casino company and a lottery supplier to buy Turfway Park. So I think the likelihood of slots passing in Kentucky is much, much greater now."

What would slots at the racetracks mean for Maryland racing?

"It would be just spectacular. Slots would give us the highest purses in the country [presuming Kentucky doesn't get them first].

"It would allow us to turn all three facilities -- Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft [harness track in Prince George's County] -- into absolute showplaces. We could generate tens of millions of dollars for marketing and advertising. And then we could turn back hundreds of millions of dollars of direct gaming-tax revenue to the state every year."

You've been criticized for not doing the little things to help your business. Instead of hitting singles or doubles, instead of increasing business in increments, you're always trying to hit home runs. Why?

"I guess it's because our competitors are scoring lots of runs. They're moving forward quickly -- with the amount of money being generated in Delaware and West Virginia, the prospects in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, the quantum leaps forward that our sports competitors here in Maryland have taken with Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, PSINet Stadium and Camden Yards.

"After living through the recession of the early '90s, where you saw the business falling like a stone, my great fear is that if the economy starts turning around, we'll fall like somebody falling off a cliff over Niagara Falls."

You've run Pimlico and Laurel Park for 10 years. How do you rate your management?

"I'm very proud of what we've accomplished and where we are. Are there things we could have done better? Sure there are things we could have done better. I'm the first person to recognize that.

"I think the Preakness, putting aside the physical problems of Pimlico, as an event is bigger and better than it's ever been. If you look at the purses that Maryland horsemen had the opportunity to run for in 1998 -- and include the purse money that was given away in Virginia as part of the circuit -- it was an all-time high by a significant factor.

"We've managed to run a viable company through some very difficult times in the early '90s and at the same time maintain probably the most favorable environment for horsemen of any jurisdiction in the country. We have three training centers, 3,000 stalls, three separate racing strips [Pimlico, Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center] maintained 365 days a year. The percentage of gross wagering dollars that goes to purses and the breeders' fund is the highest in the country -- 53 percent."

Still, many believe you have not been a good steward of Maryland racing, that you're concerned only about profits and don't care about horse racing. How do you respond to that?

"The people who have that view really don't know me. That's what it boils down to. This is my life. I don't know how else to say it. I'm single. I don't have any children. I have no other outside business interests.

"Because it is the dominant thing in my life, making it successful is, well, I can't think of words to describe how important that is to me. And it goes beyond me, because it was the dominant thing in my father's life, too.

"In the same breath, this is a business. I'm not a sportsman. There are people in racing who are independently wealthy from other pursuits who are in racing as a hobby, as a lark. They have the luxury of speaking in high-minded platitudes about what's good for racing.

"I'm not in that position. This is a business for me, just like it's a business for the trainers and the vets and the blacksmiths. It's important to me that this corporation turn a profit and be successful and be a viable economic entity."

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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