He lives close to a state of perpetual motion, so most bows he takes have to be on the run.
If ever there was a week to stand around and accept plaudits, this one's been it for Frank J. DeFrancis, owner of Laurel Race Course. But each day he keeps up his peripatetic pace and almost each day he makes headlines on a different page.
First off, he's the man who's carried the Maryland thoroughbred racing industry's tax-relief plea to Annapolis. On Wednesday the Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval and Friday it gave final approval to a $10.9 million tax break for the state's track owners and horse breeders, meaning that DeFrancis and the racing industry hold a big lead in the homestretch of this issue with House approval expected shortly.
On Thursday, it was learned that DeFrancis, working behind the scenes, engineered a tentative agreement that would mean 750 to 1,000 new jobs for the Hagerstown area -- "the greatest revitalization (that area has had) in the last 10 years," DeFrancis happily declared. Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes cited DeFrancis for his work.
Finally, DeFrancis is, perhaps, happiest over his big short-term success at Laurel, which closes its first meeting under his ownership today. He said the average daily handle, the amount of money bet, in this first-ever winter session at Laurel will set a track record for a meeting; the handle is up about 20 percent and attendance up about 12 percent compared to Bowie's 1984 winter meeting.
DeFrancis, who bought Laurel Dec. 10 and has begun modernizing its facilities, has adopted the slogan "Dawn of a New Day." Clearly, it's selling at Laurel, though at least one grandstand regular awaits the afternoon sunlight of that day. He called DeFrancis' advertising campaign "hot air promotion," but concedes that DeFrancis' order to have the grandstand windows washed was a major improvement and that if DeFrancis' remodeling can eventually match his long list of improvements at Freestate Raceway, the standardbred track he also owns in Laurel, "then he'll be all right."
The Hagerstown announcement didn't make everybody happy either. The agreement, which would have Citicorp activate an abandoned plant, was hailed by Washington County legislators because of the new jobs. It was criticized by the Maryland Bankers Association, whose assets are overshadowed by Citicorp, which as part of the arrangement would be able to open branches in the state.
But DeFrancis' style, first as a longtime Washington-based international and corporate lawyer and businessman and lately as an owner of race tracks and confidant of the Maryland governor, has not been to stand idly and take bows, or keep still long enough to be stung by criticism.
"I've been coming here 10 years and it's 500 percent improved," said a horse owner, stopping by the table at Laurel where DeFrancis was having lunch. "It's amazing what management can do," he added, shaking DeFrancis' hand. "Very well done."
No question, DeFrancis likes what he hears.
Still, his mind seemed to be moving along several furlongs into the future. "You almost can't pick out a part of this track that won't undergo a physical change," he said. "As Mr. Reagan said, you haven't seen anything yet."
To some, DeFrancis, 57, a husky man with gray-black hair, has come from out of nowhere, like a Silky Sullivan far up the track, to the forefront of Maryland racing. He's even being called by many "the savior" of Maryland racing. But, in a sense, he's been well-positioned all along, a horse racing devotee with millions of dollars.
The love affair began 45 years ago when he was 12, growing up in Meriden, Conn. His father took him on a fishing trip to New Hampshire. "After about the second day," he recalled, "the fish weren't biting, but the bugs were. We were about to go home when I saw this little fair. Across from it was a little track (Rockingham, in Salem, N.H.)." It was horses, not fish, that intrigued him. "It was like being bitten by the tsetse fly," he said.
"Damon Runyon became my favorite writer," he went on. "The Racing Form became my evening reading, when I was 13, 14 years old . . . just to read (not bet)."
Now that he's gotten into the racing business he loves as a track owner -- he's owned racehorses for years -- he likes to remark, "I'm the personification of the saying, it's better to be lucky than smart." His academic and legal careers don't support the easy characterization.
In the late '40s and '50s, he finished his education fast -- Georgetown University in three years, and Georgetown law school in two.
And he's still roaring along, the owner of homes in Chevy Chase and Annapolis, a farm in Howard County and an apartment in the District. "I stay wherever my next appointment is," he said.
At Georgetown law school, he became a protege of an international law professor from Germany, who in turn brought to Georgetown other law professors. One of these, Herman Mosler, put DeFrancis to work as a research assistant. Subsequently, Mosler, back in West Germany, hired DeFrancis to be Washington counsel for his country's diplomatic mission.
DeFrancis' link with the West German government lasted 24 years. In that time, he represented, in his words, a "Who's Who of Germany." From there the number of his clients spread across Europe.
"My next trip to Europe," he said, "will be my 209th trip."
But under doctors' urgings, he said, he slowed his pace in the late '70s until he was "the first step from putting the key in the door and retiring." It was then that he received a phone call from a National Bank of Washington official, he said, asking him to consider buying the financially troubled Laurel Raceway harness track. He said the official realized DeFrancis' interest in racing only when he happened to notice a brief newspaper account that mentioned DeFrancis' representing a horsemen's group in a medication issue.
DeFrancis bought the harness track in March 1980 and renamed it Freestate. Completely refurbished, Freestate is thriving, according to DeFrancis. In 1984, the track enjoyed dramatic increases in average attendance and handle.
Yet DeFrancis said he had to secure tax relief at the harness track before Freestate could operate successfully. Representing the harness industry, he took his case to Annapolis to reduce the "inequitous 6 percent tax" on the handle. He succeeded -- the tax was cut to 3 percent in 1983 and three-quarters of 1 percent in 1984. In his argument, DeFrancis used a poignant example to point up his woes as track owner: one night at Freestate featuring "a major promotion" in which the track had a high attendance and handle but still lost $24,000.
That tax relief for standardbred track operators was a harbinger of his current drive for thoroughbred-track relief, which would reduce the state's share of the handle from 4.09 percent to 0.5 percent. A difference in the two efforts, he said, is that he organized the harness industry; the thoroughbred industry "got its house in order" itself, and he's been the spokesman. A pet expression of his, when he says he is not seeking a "bailout," is that he wants the state "to make the playing field level with New Jersey and Delaware."
During his earlier Annapolis pleas, DeFrancis attracted the attention of the governor. He said he posed an analogy to Hughes: "If you make me your state meteorologist and I tell you there's going to be a tidal wave, you have to disbelieve me, and that's the end of it, or believe me, and go on." He told Hughes about out-of-state competition and a "tidal wave" threatening Maryland's harness tracks.
Last year, Hughes appointed DeFrancis to his cabinet, as secretary of the Department of Economic and Community Development. (He was among many who failed to persuade Robert Irsay to keep his football Colts in Baltimore). DeFrancis said the Hagerstown plant agreement with Citicorp, which he's "been working on day and night," was part of his unfinished business as cabinet member, a position he resigned when he bought Laurel.
Before he bought Laurel, DeFrancis said it was "a matter of public record" that the governor would favor tax relief to the thoroughbred industry -- thus enabling him to pour more money back into the track -- if it "got its house in order."
One change caused by that expected relief will be a sweetening of the purse in the track's premier event, the Washington, D.C. International. DeFrancis said the race will be held later than it has been in recent years, Nov. 16, "positioned behind" other turf events, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France in October and the Breeders' Cup at Aqueduct Nov. 2. He hopes the move will entice an improved field. The purse will be $500,000, he said, up from $250,000.
Thursday was a typical day for DeFrancis. Up at dawn. To Annapolis. Then to Laurel. There, he met with officials of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society National Capital Chapter to discuss a possible joint promotion. He had a meeting with horsemen, greeted patrons, fielded phone calls.
He had his daughter Karin, a Georgetown law school student, driven out to the track and planned to spend time with her that evening, although he had a business meeting planned, too. DeFrancis, who is divorced, also has a son, Joseph, an attorney and track director.
On a fast-paced tour of Laurel, DeFrancis showed off a newly decorated clubhouse lobby, and an office where he's put the old lobby sofa. He asked a woman attendant to make sure the clubhouse women's room was vacant, then showed it off. Plush.
Monday, he'd begin preparing for the May 17 opening of Freestate. "It takes three months to crank up, and I'm a month behind already."