The long-suffering horseplayers of Maryland might be about to witness the start of a bright new era in the sport.
When Laurel Race Course opens this afternoon, its customers will immediately see some striking changes in the physical plant. But the track's owner, Frank DeFrancis, hopes they also will sense a new attitude, a new concern for the comfort and well-being of the public.
Horseplayers might be cynical about DeFrancis' lofty plans if they didn't know his track record. He transformed Freestate Raceway from the worst race track in the state into the most pleasant, and now everyone in the thoroughbred industry hopes he can duplicate that miracle after buying Laurel last month.
"We tried to do as much as humanly possible in the last six weeks," DeFrancis said. "We've done as much cleaning and refurbishing as we could. At least we'll have a window to what the future is going to be like.
"We've repainted the whole seating area in designer colors," DeFrancis said.
He conferred briefly with an assistant, then said: "I was about to say red and brown, but the colors are burgundy, taupe and camel. We've refurbished the lobby in the Turf Club. We've refurbished the ladies' rooms in the grandstand and clubhouse. We improved the jockeys' room and the press box. And the whole place is clean. We even got a special consultant to clean the windows; that job took more than four weeks."
The track has launched a six-figure television advertising campaign in Baltimore and Washington -- the theme is, "Dawn of a New Day" -- in an effort to attract a broader group of fans. The track also has done something for its hard-core regulars, installing a shoe board that will show the type of footwear each horse is using.
But of all DeFrancis' innovations, the one that best reflects his philosophy is his hiring of some 40 new employes. Young people clad in white sweaters and dark slacks will roam through the track, soliciting suggestions and listening to complaints from customers.
"This," DeFrancis said, "is our way of reinforcing to the racing fans the fact that we're glad that they're there and we care what they think."
This also is DeFrancis' answer to another problem, that he has little control over hiring. At Freestate, he was able to start from scratch and pick polite, clean-cut young people to work for him. Mutuel sellers and parking lot attendants cheerily wish their customers, "Good luck!" Their counterparts at thoroughbred tracks are more apt to be grizzled and surly, but DeFrancis feels there will be a change here, too.
"In the long run, I hope to institute a training program for all our employes," he said. "But I've already talked to our work force and they know what has to be done. They realize that this industry is at a crossroads and we've got to make our patrons know how much they mean to us. After our first meeting, I was very much encouraged. There's enthusiasm all over the track."
Indeed, there is enthusiasm for DeFrancis' efforts in every corner of the racing industry. Even those of us who are inclined to be distrustful of all race track managements have to feel a sense of boosterism as Laurel starts its season. For if DeFrancis' efforts can't revive the game in Maryland, it's hard to imagine what else will.