Frank DeFrancis won't officially take over Laurel Race Course until Monday, but for months people concerned with Maryland racing have been talking about him as a potential savior.
Trainers, owners and bettors think (or at least hope) that he singlehandedly can revive the moribund thoroughbred industry. And they're probably right. DeFrancis' spectacularly successful management of Freestate Raceway has proved that he is capable of working miracles.
If he fails at Laurel, thoroughbred racing in the state may be beyond salvation.
DeFrancis is fully aware of the high stakes involved in his purchase of Laurel with partners Robert and Thomas Manfuso. "I feel a great sense of responsibility," he said. "Maryland racing is at the crossroads. The crisis is now. But I'm convinced I can make this succeed."
DeFrancis is a highly successful international lawyer. And he served a productive term as the director of Maryland's Department of Economic and Community Development, a post he stepped down from this week. But he has probably never done anything more spectacular than his transformation of Freestate Raceway into an example for all of racing.
A thoroughbred-racing fan since the age of 12, DeFrancis had for a long time wanted to get involved in the sport, but his first opportunity came when Laurel Raceway, a harness track, went up for sale. DeFrancis did more than change the name to Freestate. He turned it from a leaky-roof eyesore into a showplace.
He increased purses and improved the quality of competition. Most important of all, he created a friendly atmosphere that was heretofore unknown in Maryland. Clean-cut parking lot attendants greet you by saying, "Have a good evening." Mutuel sellers don't growl; they smilingly wish you good luck.
While Freestate has been enjoying dramatic growth, the business of its thoroughbred counterparts has been declining steadily. Even people who consider themselves diehard racing fans have been alienated and have stopped going to the races. Any of them can cite a litany of complaints: unattractive, dirty physical facilities, high admission and parking fees, poor concessions, rude employes.
The managers of Laurel, Bowie and Pimlico can offer plenty of alibis for the loss of their fans (competition from lotteries, Atlantic City, etc.) but the major problem is management and leadership. In the hierarchies of the three tracks there is not a single person who really knows how to run a race track, let alone emerge as a leader of the industry.
Laurel President John Schapiro and Bowie General Manager Al Karwacki have always seemed indifferent to their fans. Pimlico's Chick Lang is an able manager, but he seems downright hostile to his fans.
Frank DeFrancis knows how to run a race track, and when he cites his most pressing objectives at Laurel it is clear that he is in touch with the sensibilities of his future customers. Those objectives:
* Improve the physical plant.
"At Freestate," he said, "our model was the casinos. We wanted it pleasing to the eye and immaculately clean." He's got a lot of work ahead of him at Laurel between now and Janaury, when the track reopens. Get out the scrub buckets.
* Maintain the integrity of the game.
"We want people to have the perception that this sport is completely on the up and up. We want them to have the maximum shot for their dollar." De Francis cited the need for a system to insure the accurate reporting of workouts in Maryland. Halleleujah!
* Treat customers courteously.
"At Freestate," DeFrancis said, "we had the luxury of hiring a totally new staff. At Laurel, we're going to have training programs and an educational process for the employes. We are competing for the entertainment dollar, and the days of the grizzled, curt old employe is over" . . .
DeFrancis also will be working to improve relations with horsemen; to convince the state legislature to grant the thoroughbred tracks necessary tax relief. He has a vast job ahead of him, and yet, he said, "I don't think my optimism is sophomoric. In the Washington-Baltimore corridor, we have the third largest market in the United States. In racing, we have the most exciting game. We can turn this around."