The last time I went to Laurel Raceway, I remember buying my daily double tickets as raindrops were falling on my head -- through one of the numerous holes in the roof. Even by the not-so-high standards of Maryland racing, the harness track was deplorable.
And, of course, Laurel's physical dilapidation was the least of its problems. Its owner plundered the track and was convicted of embezzlement. And when a bank foreclosed on the property earlier this year, there was doubt Laurel would ever recover from the scandal and the mismanagement.
But it has recovered, almost overnight. Two weeks ago, the track opened with a new name, Freestate Raceway; a new owner, Frank DeFrancis, and a new philosophy, which may seem alien to the state's regular race-goers.
Marylanders are largely unfamiliar with the concept that a race track should make a determined effort to please its customers.
At bowie, in particular, the prevailing philosophy is that most horseplayers would climb over barbed-wire fences to get a bet down. So, it would be pointless to spend money to make them more comfortable. Management's contempt for its customers seems to carry over to many of the thoroughbred track's employes, whose dispositions could not be described as sunny.
For a Bowie habitue, it is shocking to go to Freestate, pay your parking fee to a smiling, well-scrubbed youth who wishes you a hearty, "Good luck!" and then encounter during the evening a succession of ushers, waitresses and mutuel clerks who are almost suffocatingly polite.
The conduct of the employes is obviously not happenstance. In only a few weeks, DeFrancis has put more of a personal stamp on Freestate than many track owners do in years.
DeFrancis made a pile of money as an international lawyer and retired six years ago to concentrate on managing that money. He owns motels in Texas, restaurants in Florida and assorted real estate. But when Laurel Raceway went up for sale, he could scarcely restrain his excitement.
Even if it had been an office building, DeFrancis said, he would love to have bought the property. But a racetrack! Forty years ago DeFrancis made his first trip to a track. Rockingham Park, and he was hooked. He has owned thoroughbreds over the years and, he said, "You can't love the game the way we do without having some ideas about how fans and horsemen should be treated. When people come, you want to offer an entertainment where courtesy and concern for the public are your No. 1 concerns."
All race track owners (except Bowie's) pay lip service to this sentiment, but DeFrancis did something about it. He had only six weeks after closing the deal to prepare Freestate for opening day. But in that short time he transformed the clubhouse from a yellow cinderblock eyesore into an attractive place. It's never going to be the Taj Mahal of racing, but it has many nice and surprising touches: flowers, old racing prints on the walls, antique lamps at the clubhouse entrance.
DeFrancis hired a staff of five to interview applicants for every job, even for parking lot attendants. He met with each group of employes, told them how he wanted them to treat the public and said, "I broke my hump getting this place ready. Now we're turning it over to you."
For those of us who have complained for years about the way Maryland's tracks are run, DeFrancis' efforts at Freestate are especially interesting. The attitude toward the public epitomized by Bowie seems stupid, as well as contemptible.
A track that won't cater to its customers has to lose business in the long run.
Ben Schwartz, chairman of Maryland's harness Racing Board, has long held this view and railed against the short-sightedness of some track owners. He is impressed by DeFrancis' initial efforts. "He's really got the right idea, I think," Schwartz said. "If he fails, then everything we thought about racing and business fails."
The early returns indicate that DeFrancis' efforts are paying off. Freestate attendance is 18 percent ahead of Laurel's last year.