Maryland's thoroughbred racing industry, beset in recent years by poor attendance, stagnant purses and deteriorating facilities, appears headed toward recovery because of two major developments: a proposed bill to reduce state tax on parimutuel betting to one-half of one percent and Frank DeFrancis' purchase of Laurel Race Course.
DeFrancis, who transformed Freestate Raceway into an attractive, prominent harness racing facility, recently hired about 40 college students to question track patrons on how to improve conditions at Laurel.
"Opening week, there were so many complaints, it was staggering," said Lynda O'Dea, Laurel's director of marketing. "At least 50 percent of the complaints were directed against employes. Now that we've started making improvements, they've stopped.
"We've taken out the complaints that need to be addressed immediately," she said. "Broken steps, problems with restroom facilities, the types of things that require immediate attention." Laurel will attempt to rectify less pressing problems by its fall meeting, O'Dea said.
After purchasing Laurel, DeFrancis proclaimed it "The Dawn of a New Day" for the track. After 35 dates (through Sunday), its attendance was up 11.9 percent and its handle 21 percent compared to the first 35 days of Bowie's 1984 winter meeting. Bowie will stage its final meeting June 3 to July 13.
Despite the improvements, a number of people interviewed by The Washington Post at Bowie and Laurel Race Courses were critical of Maryland racing, although some were positive about the sport's future.
At Bowie during its meeting this January, Santo Strange of Baltimore said, "The regulars are always going to come, no matter what, as long as there's racing. But it appears to me that the state is really going to start losing the occasional patrons who aren't so serious about gambling."
Sal Franco, Bowie: "The biggest problem is the way people are treated. People working at the tracks are not courteous. They're not big on catering to the average bettor.
"I've been coming to the tracks for 30 years. I've seen the steady deterioration."
Danielle McNeil, Landover: "Racing isn't a good value any more, not at these rates. It costs $1.75 for the (Daily Racing) Form, $1 to park, $3 to $5 to get into the place, 50 cents for the program. You can spend almost $10 before you even make a bet.
"If all the tracks in Maryland gave senior citizens a free day, it would upgrade their intake and be a service to the older folks.
"They're not doing anything to attract young people," said a retired Washington attorney who requested anonymity. "Look at the crowd: probably half are senior citizens. Ten years from now, when they lose these people, Maryland racing is going to be in trouble.
Brenda Perry, Largo: "What kills me is that all these people who complain about the track, they're here almost every day. I mean, there must be something about it they like.
"Sure, I think there could be better facilities, and I think they should have a more modern track. But I try not to let it cloud my thinking. I'm more trying to pick winners than to look at what's going on in the grandstand."
At the current meeting at Laurel, Leroy Manning of Baltimore said, "Maryland tracks have taken a turn for the worse. They've got to show people they're trying to do something to make them more comfortable.
"This man (DeFrancis) is showing courtesy to the people. He's spending money to make the place look nice. You can see the difference in the little time this place has been opened. When you're losing money, you at least want to be treated decently.
"For instance, people are tired of getting shut out (of a wager). Every time somebody gets shut out, the track loses money and the people get upset. So why don't they put on more people and open up more windows?"
Manny Blumenthal, Silver Spring: "It's very sad, but racing isn't very popular these days. The state and the tracks have no one to blame but themselves. They could have done a lot of things to stop the trend a long time ago. In 20 years, nothing has changed. Racing is at its lowest point ever; it can't go anywhere but up.
"The biggest problem was management. But since Laurel has opened, 10 people have come up to me and asked, 'What can we do to improve this place?' We never saw anything like that before. DeFrancis taking over was the best thing that's ever happened to Maryland racing."
Jolly Schneider, Falls Church: "In the winter time, they need to make the waiting time less between races, so people can get home earlier.
"He (DeFrancis) did a wonderful job of fixing up the restrooms. I went into one here (at Laurel) that has nice, thick carpeting. You can go take your shoes off and relax your feet if you want to. I wouldn't even go into some of them at the other tracks, and I'm not that fussy."
Esther Buchanan, Bowie: "This is the first time this place has ever been clean. You can actually see out of the windows. It's nice, but they still have a long way to go.
"The food isn't worth it for the prices they charge. I wouldn't mind if it was good."
Ralph Pearson, Gaithersburg: "They must be doing something right, 'cause I enjoy myself even when I lose. And I lose 90 percent of the time."
Larry Hale, Lanham: "I really don't see any change in the eight years I've been coming. For some people, the track's appearance really matters. To me, it really doesn't. A lot of people use this as a place of business."
David Mack, Baltimore: "I remember a time we used to come down here and they'd be burning wood in a big oil drum; they didn't have no heating facilities. People who were around then can appreciate what they've got here now."
Ricky Erdman, Washington: "When I got my head in the Form . . . the walls could be crashing down, and it wouldn't matter . . . I can't afford to be worrying about how clean the bathroom is. You start doing that, and you'll get broke quick."