Frank DeFrancis, who will complete the purchase of Laurel Race Course Monday, looked around the plush President's Lounge at the track yesterday and said, "From where Freestate was as a harness track, this will be a little bit of heaven to walk into."
DeFrancis said he will walk in slowly after he and partners John A. (Tommy) Manfuso Jr. and Robert Manfuso pay $15.5 million for the racing assets of Laurel and half of Bowie, which Laurel owns in a joint venture with Pimlico. John D. Schapiro, whose family has owned Laurel for 35 years, will receive $600,000 over five years in consulting fees and for agreeing not to compete in the racing business.
DeFrancis, 57, will own 55 percent of Laurel and will be president, chairman of the board and chief operating officer. The only major change being made immediately is the appointment of Larry Abbundi as director of racing and racing secretary, DeFrancis said. Now, Abbundi will be racing secretary at all three Maryland mile tracks. DeFrancis also said he will bring in a number of his top managers from Freestate to serve as special assistants at Laurel.
DeFrancis, who resigned Thursday as Maryland's secretary of economic development, said at a press conference yesterday he would decide within 30 days whether the Washington, D.C. International will be continued. That race has been troubled in recent years by competition from races offering bigger purses.
DeFrancis also said it was inevitable that he would consolidate Laurel and Freestate, his harness track about a mile north of Laurel on U.S. 1. "It's ludicrous not to," he said. "But there are so many things to change here, it's down the road. Whether it's two, three, four or five years, I don't know."
DeFrancis, hailed by Schapiro as "the future of Maryland racing," said he was counting on the thoroughbred racing industry going to Annapolis "with one voice" and getting a reduction in the state parimutuel tax, as harness racing did two years ago.
DeFrancis was the spokesman for the harness industry at that time. A plan will soon be submitted to Gov. Harry Hughes that would reduce the parimutuel tax from 4.09 percent to .50 percent, with the extra revenues being split equally between horsemen and track ownership.
DeFrancis said he will use the same philosophical approach that has enabled Freestate to increase its average parimutuel handle from $406,649 to $563,970 in five years. Laurel, after a record average handle of $1,136,033 in 1982, closed its fall meeting yesterday with an average handle of $1,022,406.
"We've got to reverse the stagnation. We've got to move forward," DeFrancis said. "We've got to expand the base of mutuel handle. If we don't, I've made a bad investment."
DeFrancis will not make major changes at this time in part because the track's next meet starts in five weeks, and because he says he has not gotten involved in the sale while serving in Hughes' cabinet. His son, Joseph, and his attorney, Martin Jacobs, handled the six-month long negotiations.
"My No. 1 priority is to walk through the plant, talk to all the employees and heads of departments. I'll talk to them and share my thoughts about the future, because they are the most important part (of reversing Laurel's decline).
"When you improve facilities and get the employees so the patron is happy to come here because he knows he will be treated right, and (you) get horsemen to put on the best of shows, it becomes my job to promote and attract customers to the facility, because once they come, they'll be fans."
The only thing holding up the sale is approval by Laurel stockholders Monday and the transfer of title later that day. "In the words of the great American philsopher Yogi Berra," Schapiro said, " 'The game isn't over until it's over.' But it's over."
DeFrancis said except for $2.29 million in industrial revenue bonds, no bank is involved in financing the sale. He said the remaining money will be paid in cash and promissory notes backed by certificates of deposit.
DeFrancis declined to give any specifics of the minority interests, pending approval by the Laurel stockholders and a filing with the State Racing Commission. But he said Lou Guida of Yardley, Pa., and Dr. and Mrs. Jules Neuman of Philadelphia will be limited partners.
Guida put together the syndicate for Niatross, currently the hottest stallion in harness racing, and owns the top 3-year-old pacer, Nihilator.
When Schapiro put the track on the market four years ago, the asking price was reported to be $18 million. But that was for a complete sale of all the Laurel stock. With DeFrancis buying Laurel's assets, Schapiro will keep income from this year's race meeting, some tax carryback losses and a 175-acre farm on the Bowie property.
Schapiro said that despite numerous rumors about the sale of the track in the past five years, there was only "one serious and one half-serious" bidder before the DeFrancis-Manfuso group started negotiations.
Schapiro said that he thought Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke was serious about buying the track in 1981. But he said that deal fizzled "because of the mismanagement of our management."
Schapiro's departure comes at a point when, for the first time, there is no open acrimony between track management, horsemen and the state's breeding industry. So why is Schapiro leaving?
"We started these negotiations six months ago, and there have been a lot of favorable developments (in the interim), but we made the decision to sell," Schapiro said. "I have devoted 35 years to racing, and I thought it was time to step aside and pursue other things I might be interested in, and to allow some young people to pick up the gauntlet and bring in some vitality and new enthusiasm . . . There is a time to sow and a time to reap, and a time to go into other things."
DeFrancis said the track's new slogan will be: "A new day has dawned in Maryland racing." He talked about his accomplishments at Freestate, his accomplishments in state government and concluded, "In the words of all those philosophers, 'You ain't seen nothing yet.' "