Era hits finish line

The Baltimore Sun

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.

Joe De Francis was a 34-year-old Washington lawyer specializing in corporate mergers and antitrust litigation when his father asked him to take over the family business. He had briefly run Laurel's Freestate Raceway harness track for his father, but as chairman and chief executive of Pimlico and Laurel, he suddenly became the most powerful racing official in a state steeped in horse culture. His sister, Karin, left her job as a prosecutor in California to assist him.

"His father's death left a real void in the industry," Boniface said. "Joe had very tough shoes to fill in an industry that was undergoing major changes."

As a man who dressed impeccably and wielded the vocabulary of a high-powered lawyer, Joe De Francis cast a different aura than his father.

"We were as close as a father and son could be, but in a business context, we were very different," Joe De Francis said. "He was so gregarious, so outspoken. I tended to be more analytical, more methodical."

Asked questions

De Francis said that contrast was the most difficult aspect of taking over his father's business relationships.

"He's actually much warmer than he appears, but he doesn't seem like a guy you just walk up to, stick out your hand and talk horses," Akman said of the younger De Francis.

Racing people were naturally skeptical of the newcomer, Lang said. "But what I liked the most about Joe was that if he had a question about something, he was never embarrassed to ask it."

De Francis oversaw the transition to full-card simulcasting and opened a network of off-track betting facilities that never lived up to expectations. But winning approval for slot machines became his greatest quest, seen basically as a magic bullet for a fading industry.

"He was reacting to what was happening around the country," Boniface said. "He could see what slots were allowing other states around us to do."

Critics said De Francis hurt himself in the slots debate by backing Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey in 1994 and 1998 instead of two-time winner Parris N. Glendening. Others said he and fellow slots advocates focused on the issue so intently they ignored other problems. Some lawmakers perceived De Francis' advocacy for slots as a lunge at personal profit rather than an attempt to save the racing industry.

"That was very unfair to him," said John McDaniel, former chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission. "He was able to see that there was a sea change taking place in the racing world, and he really did all he could to get Maryland to embrace that."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said De Francis' exit should clear the way in the General Assembly for a slots proposal. The House of Delegates has long been opposed to a plan, with House Speaker Michael E. Busch firmly against it. Busch has previously said he objected to the "unjust enrichment" of track owners and prefers state-owned slots facilities.

'Positive step'

"It's a positive step," Miller said. "The speaker has never cared for Joe De Francis and has made one of his objections to video lottery terminals the fact that Joe De Francis might somehow benefit."

Boniface said trainers and breeders believed De Francis had the industry's best interests at heart.

"But Annapolis is a funny world," he said. "And some of the avenues he took turned out not to be the best for him."

De Francis said he couldn't point to any one thing he should have done differently.

"All we ever really wanted was a level playing field," he said. "I continue to have a grave concern about the future of the company and the industry if the field isn't leveled."

De Francis' public profile has diminished since the sale to Magna five years ago. He has deliberately backed away from negotiations in Annapolis over slot machines. And he said he'll be even less involved in day-to-day operations now, though he'll be available for advice as a Magna board member.

Boniface and McDaniel hope that with the De Francis family out of the picture, the legislature will become more open to passing slots legislation.

Asked about Joe De Francis' legacy, several horsemen reached for bittersweet descriptions of a man who they said saw the big picture but couldn't control the forces that shaped it.

"It happened on his watch, whether you like it or not," Akman said of the industry's decline. "But in my opinion, it's wrong to blame him. He was just unfortunate to be in a business where he was dependent on other people passing a bill."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka contributed to this article.

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