Frank DeFrancis is one of the most successful race track executives in the United States because he is able to utter a sentence that would choke other people in his business. "We are a gambling house," he says of his operation at Laurel Race Course.
Most tracks forget who their prime customers are. When Robert Brennan rebuilt Garden State for $100 million, its most striking feature was a black-marble dining room that would attract casual fans looking for a pleasant evening. Pimlico's general manager, Chick Lang, often has spoken with contempt about his hard-core "degenerate" customers.
But DeFrancis recognizes that serious horseplayers are a race track's lifeblood, and when Laurel reopens in September he will unveil a monument to that belief. The track's $2 million Sports Palace is such a brilliant concept that people who love to play the horses -- and are used to having their needs ignored by track managements -- will be delirious with joy when they see it.
Imagine that you're sitting in the Sports Palace, studying a maiden-special weight race on the Laurel turf course, and you are pondering the chances of a first-time starter trained by Larry Horning Jr. You wonder: How does he do with first-time starters? What's his record on the turf?
So you walk to a nearby computer terminal, type Horning's name, hit a couple of other buttons and the machine tells you his winning percentage with firsters, with grass horses and many other categories.
Or imagine you're studying the racing form and see the word "blocked" at the end of a horse's past-performance line. This could mean just about anything -- an inconsequential bit of trouble or serious interference that cost him the race.
So you go to a desk in the video library and tell the attendant, "I'd like to see the seventh race on Sept. 23." "Go to monitor No. 7," the attendant says. Within a minute, you get to see three replays of that race, each from a different angle.
"I've had this idea for two years," DeFrancis said. "It's a concept to use the high-tech equipment of today, to reach out and meet the needs of the racing fan by giving him more data and a better opportunity to win. I think, too, that with the concept we can reach out to a whole world of young people who are involved with computers. It will be an enticement to them."
The Sports Palace also will try to entice fans (and bettors) of other sports by televising four different events on four large screens, and also showing up-to-the-minute scores on two electronic message boards.
Again, DeFrancis knows his constituency. Instead of catering to social clubs, he is trying to lure the gamblers who might stay at home on Sunday to watch television and root for their football wagers. Now they can go to Laurel, keep tabs on four different games and still bet nine races. It's an action guy's paradise.
Among DeFrancis' other immediate plans for Laurel:
* He will ask the racing commission to approve a Twin Trifecta, the form of exotic wagering that requires picking the first three finishers in order in two consecutive races. Popular and successful at Delaware Park, the Twin Tri generates big payoffs much more often than Maryland's current exotic wager, the Pic Six.
* Laurel will try to restore the diminishing prestige of the Washington, D.C. International, and will start by raising the purse from $250,000 to $400,000. After a trip to Europe, DeFrancis is confident that top European stables will support the race.
* DeFrancis obtained permission from the Maryland Racing Commission yesterday to show the films used by the stewards when the track televises the previous day's races. The stewards' films look at a race from several different angles -- including the crucial head-on shot coming out of the gate -- and they reveal far more trouble than the standard pan shot does. Having access to these films is important to handicappers who understand the value of watching races, but tracks have resisted making them public for fear that their stewards will be second-guessed.
As much as serious horseplayers will benefit from these innovations, the greatest effect of them will be the attitude they convey, the evidence that a race track management cares about its best customers.
For years and years, Maryland horseplayers have known that the tracks cared nothing for their interests. It was only after major struggles that tracks consented to print information about Lasix use in their programs or inform the public which horses were wearing mud caulks. Maryland racing alienated and drove away its best customers in large numbers. This fall, they may start coming back.