When Frank DeFrancis bought moribund Freestate Raceway four years ago, the task he faced was clear-cut: He had to renovate the track's decrepit physical plant. He did the job so well that he transformed Freestate into a booming enterprise.
DeFrancis' performance at the harness track has led Maryland racing fans to hope that he will work another miracle at Laurel Race Course, which he bought last month.
When Laurel reopens Jan. 21 under his management, the place will show some improvements and it surely will be immaculate. Even so, I'd bet that the DeFrancis touch won't win new fans at Laurel quite so easily as he did at Freestate. The problems in the Maryland thoroughbred industry run too deep.
Laurel has a bright, airy, comfortable grandstand, certainly the nicest in Maryland and one that compares favorably with most other glass-enclosed tracks. Yet Laurel's average attendance has declined steadily over the past decade, just as Bowie's and Pimlico's have. The physical facilities aren't the heart of the problem.
Racing fans -- even the most hard-core fans -- have been alienated from the sport in Maryland, and probably the main reason has been the indifferent or contemptuous attitude of track owners and racing officials toward their customers.
John Schapiro, DeFrancis' predecessor, was more interested in catering to the society folks in his Turf Club than to the horseplayers in his grandstand. Pimlico's Chick Lang has little regard for "degenerate gamblers," and even the track's advertising tends to depict horseplayers as boobs who use a hatpin to make their selection.
With such leadership, Maryland's racing industry has done almost nothing to serve the interests of bettors. No officials seem terribly concerned about protecting the game from illegal drugs or other forms of larceny. Nobody seems to care if bettors get necessary handicapping information (although the racing commissions did require, after years of prodding, that the names of first-time Lasix horses be made public).
With the state Legislature seemingly ready to give back millions of dollars in tax money to the industry, nobody in power has recommended that some of this money should go back to the bettors in the form of a lower parimutuel take.
Horseplayers have become so soured by the industry's treatment of them that many have deserted the game in favor of sports betting, harness racing or casino gambling.
As DeFrancis formulates his plans to revitalize Laurel, I'd like to offer a couple of suggestions that would address this attitudinal problem. One would be cheap, simple and richly symbolic: install a shoe board at Laurel.
Almost every major track tells its customers what kind of shoes the horses are wearing. This information can be vital on sloppy tracks, when horses wearing mud caulks may have a decided advantage. But Maryland's tracks have no shoe boards; why bother doing something that would be appreciated only by "degenerate gamblers?"
A more ambitious goal would be the adoption of a system to ensure accurate and honest reporting of workouts. When this vital information remains the private property of trainers and other insiders, bettors are made to feel like suckers.
When the Legislature considers a racing bill this year that would give millions of dollars in tax relief to the sport, DeFrancis will be one of the industry's principal spokesmen.
He should argue that some of this money be used to pay the salaries of clockers and other personnel who would be responsible for compiling workout information. This would cost more than $100,000 a year, but it would send an important message to the disaffected horseplayers of the state.
It's going to take more than a fresh paint job to win them back.