For almost a decade, Joseph A. De Francis failed miserably in his drive to bring slot machine gambling to his aging Maryland racetracks. He wooed the wrong politicians, alienated allies in the horse industry and ran afoul of prosecutors, who charged him with making illegal campaign donations.
But today, after spending $1.3 million on lobbyists and almost $300,000 to curry political favor in the past four years alone, De Francis is closer than ever to winning the prize he has chased for so long.
The Maryland Senate is scheduled to vote today on a bill that would permit De Francis to operate 7,000 slot machines at his two thoroughbred tracks, Pimlico in Baltimore and Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County. The measure is expected to pass the Senate and has the governor's support, though its fate in the House of Delegates is less certain.
Slots are expected to generate immense returns, more than $1.5 billion in revenue each year, according to lawmakers' estimates. And no one stands to gain more from the jackpot than De Francis and his family, who would be guaranteed a slice of the profits for 20 years even if they divest themselves completely of their ownership of the tracks.
If slots do come to Maryland, however, it's hard to tell whether that will be because of De Francis, or in spite of him.
The 48-year-old antitrust lawyer with the slicked-back hair and powder-blue suits has become the focus of the anti-gambling movement. Slots foes have churned out fliers that depict him as "lawbreaker/multimillionaire Joe De Francis."
Despite his campaign contributions to elected officials in Annapolis and elsewhere in Maryland, many of those same lawmakers regard him as politically radioactive. Some have turned against him, including former governor Parris N. Glendening (D), who froze efforts to legalize slots during his last four years in office.
Along the way, De Francis has also alienated horse trainers and breeders, rival track owners, state regulators and investors -- people who otherwise would have supported his campaign for slots.
"Joe has difficulty living up to his word," said Bob Manfuso, a horse breeder and former business partner who fought De Francis for control of the tracks in the early 1990s. "The performance at the tracks under his watch has been a disaster."
Fairly or not, De Francis's enemies blame him for the fall of Maryland racing, which has suffered since he inherited a controlling share of the Maryland Jockey Club from his father 14 years ago.
Frank De Francis was a legendary figure in the racing world who revived Pimlico and Laurel Park in the 1980s and displayed an unmistakable passion for horses. His son is accused of not caring about the sport, something he strenuously denies.
"I take great pride in the fact that I've been able to keep racing going -- help keep it going -- under enormous pressure in very difficult times," Joe De Francis said in an interview. "Slots have totally revitalized racing in other states. It's been a renaissance, a complete metamorphosis of epic proportions."
His critics, though, cite his repeated pledges to rebuild his tracks and point to business deals gone sour.
"The only problem I have with Joe is that his word is not his bond," said William Rickman Jr., whose family owns the Delaware Park thoroughbred track near Wilmington. "His word isn't worth much."
Rickman holds a license to build a racetrack in Western Maryland and would also benefit from slots if the General Assembly approves the plan. He said De Francis's relationship with many lawmakers is so strained that it is harming the entire industry.
"You have to have credibility whenever you're trying to do a business deal, and this is a very complicated business deal," Rickman said. Given De Francis's reputation, he added, "it's very difficult to have legislators look at this with an objective eye."
A Difficult Sell
Slot machines were considered an easy bet in November when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) won the governorship. Ehrlich had campaigned heavily on slots and called his election a "mandate" to bring them to Maryland.
Powerful lawmakers also were on board, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) and House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore).
But the proposal has proven to be a more difficult sell than expected as public attention focuses on how much money the track owners, particularly De Francis, stand to gain.
De Francis said there is no guarantee that he'll earn a dime if slots are approved.
He said his bankers estimate that the Jockey Club could actually lose money under the Senate's proposal, which would give track owners 39 percent of the $1.5 billion in proceeds from slots. Operating expenses, loan payments and other costs would eat up just about everything, he said.
"I personally would make virtually nothing," he said. "I can say, unequivocally, that it would not result in any windfall."
De Francis knows that he's a lightning rod in the slots debate but dismisses the criticism as political opportunism, saying he's an easy target.
"The concept that bringing slots to Maryland would enrich a small group of fat-cat track owners has a lot of political sex appeal," he said. "It has no basis in fact -- that's very important -- but it has political sex appeal. It's an easy sound bite."
Many politicians, even those who support slots in general, said they have a hard time believing De Francis's assertions. Why would he push so hard for a deal that wouldn't put money in his pocket?
"He's going to have a monopoly on a gold mine for 15 years," said former Democratic state senator Barbara A. Hoffman, who accepted campaign contributions from De Francis and whose Baltimore district included areas surrounding Pimlico. "But this is not just about slots. It's about Joe and how well he's maintained his [tracks] and how well he's kept his promises."
Clubs Cause Skepticism
Much of the skepticism stems from De Francis's management of the Jockey Club.
Both racetracks are old and falling apart. Pimlico dates to 1870. It betrayed its age on national television in 1998 when a power outage disrupted the running of the Preakness Stakes, part of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.
Laurel Park was built in 1911 and has problems of its own. The grandstand was temporarily shuttered three years ago because of falling glass and other structural problems.
Attendance at the tracks has dropped. Hundreds of jobs have been eliminated. Conditions in the stables and barns are "among the worst in the nation," said John Robb, a longtime trainer.
De Francis acknowledged that the tracks are not in great shape, but he said he and his family have spent millions on renovations and repairs.
"It's enormously expensive to keep these aged facilities in suitable condition," he said. "Every dollar in profit that this business has generated, we have plowed back into the business."
The racetracks have been marginally profitable in recent years.
Although the Jockey Club reported a $273,000 loss in 2002, it was the first time in a decade that the company did not earn a profit. In 2001, the firm recorded profits of $1.5 million. According to the firm's financial statements, De Francis has received a $350,000 annual salary since 1999.
There is widespread agreement that Maryland racing and De Francis's business have suffered since Delaware and West Virginia legalized slots at their racetracks in the mid-1990s.
Both states had been considered also-rans in the racing world. But they suddenly became flush with gambling money and dedicated millions of dollars for racing purses, which in turn attracted fans, trainers and breeders from Maryland.
In response, Maryland created a $10 million annual subsidy for racing purses, but later eliminated it because of infighting in the horse industry.
A Deal for De Francis
Last year, De Francis surrendered majority ownership of the Jockey Club to Magna Entertainment Corp., a Canadian racing conglomerate. The overall purchase price was valued at $117 million. Magna now owns about 55 percent of the company; De Francis and his sister, Karin, kept a 45 percent stake and retained management control over the daily operations of the tracks.
One of the most intensively negotiated parts of the deal was a side arrangement spelling out who would receive what portion of any profits that might result. The agreement guarantees De Francis and his sister a share of the profits for 20 years; as much as 24 percent of pretax earnings during the first five years of operation.
De Francis and his sister also built in an option to sell the rest of their shares for an additional $18.3 million.
Although De Francis said he has no plans to sell, he has the right to cash in his option at any time. If he does, he would still be guaranteed his share of any slots profits over a 20-year period
De Francis and others in the industry said slots would make Maryland competitive with other states and bring a renaissance to the racetracks. The owners of Pimlico and Laurel have promised to invest $650 million in their properties if slots are legalized there, although it is unclear how much of that would go to build gambling halls and how much would go to fix up the racetracks.
Others predicted that the racetracks would continue their downhill slide if slots are approved. Louis Ulman, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, said the track owners would get a much higher return on their investment by catering to slots players than racing fans.
"What's going to make him focus on racing instead of slots?" Ulman said. "It would behoove him personally to spend it all on the slots side and not on the racing side."
De Francis has been planning for slots at his racetracks since 1994 and has spent more than $200,000 annually on lobbying fees in Annapolis. But his efforts have often backfired.
In 1996, he pleaded no contest to funneling $12,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Glendening. Not only did De Francis get caught, but Glendening later turned into a leading opponent of expanded gambling in the state.
Two years later, De Francis switched sides and donated more than $200,000 to Republican causes in a bid to help Ellen S. Sauerbrey defeat Glendening. That backfired, too, when Glendening won reelection and became even more of a hard-liner on slots.
In last fall's election, Magna sank $12,000 into Ehrlich's campaign, but De Francis and the Jockey Club saved the biggest contribution -- $200,000 -- for a national Democratic political action committee controlled by Miller, the Senate president.
"He doesn't have the political skills to navigate his way through Annapolis," said former state senator Michael Collins, a Baltimore Democrat. "The only reason Joe has been a player is because he owned the playground. He was not, and is not, a skilled political tactician."
De Francis's personal style has also turned off some lawmakers. He owns a stretch limousine and hires expensive lawyers and lobbyists, which can make his appeals for state financial help ring hollow.
"They have spent far too much time in Annapolis trying to wheel and deal and not enough time tending to their business," said John Franzone, another member of the Maryland Racing Commission.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.