When Frank De Francis died and Joe De Francis succeeded him as the president of Laurel and Pimlico, the son readily acknowledged that neither he nor anybody else could take the place of the most brilliant executive in American racing. The tracks' customers knew that, too, and realized the newcomer would need some time to settle into his job.
But more than a year has passed under the new regime, and Maryland racing still seems devoid of the innovative spirit that characterized the Frank De Francis era. Now the fans are getting restless.
After I wrote a column two weeks ago about some of the shortcomings of the simulcasting operations in the state, I was besieged by horseplayers who wanted to tell me how much they agreed and who wanted to register complaints of their own. There is a growing undercurrent of disaffection among area racing fans.
What the local tracks need, more than any specific improvement, is to recapture the old innovative spirit that produced Sports Palaces, video-replay centers and computer terminals for use by fans. But if management can't figure out what to do besides opening the gates every day, I can suggest three areas where improvement is long overdue. Food concessions. The eating habits of Americans have changed dramatically in recent years, toward lighter, less fatty, lower-calorie foods, toward more creative and ethnic types of cuisine. But when you enter a Maryland racetrack, you are stepping into a gastronomic time warp.
The Harry M. Stevens Co., concessionaire for Laurel and Pimlico, is a venerable racing institution, but its concession stands probably offer much of the same fare they did 40 years ago: hamburgers, hot dogs, greasy fried chicken and greasy french fries; perhaps a tuna sandwich that looks as if it dates back to the time of Kelso.
Tracks from coast to coast are getting away from such reliance on big globs of fat and cholesterol. At Saratoga, you can have a shrimp stir-fry cooked in front of you on a hot grill. At Calder, you can buy empanadas and other Cuban specialties. Hollywood Park has numerous ethnic concession stands. The Fair Grounds has a good raw bar. Maybe the day will come when we can go to Laurel and, instead of a hot dog, order a piece of yellowtail sushi. In-House television. A racetrack's closed-circuit television system gives it an excellent way to inform and educate its patrons. Yet Laurel and Pimlico continue to rely on a tired formula that grows more wearisome by the day.
An analyst will offer a brief, humorless and unenlightening commentary on the race, followed by his one-two-three picks. Newcomers to the track might be tempted to criticize analyst Doug Vair for his presentation, except that his two predecessors also offered brief, humorless, unenlightening commentaries followed by their one-two-three picks, suggesting that this is the format the track wants.
Philadelphia Park, among other tracks, is demonstrating how informative a closed-circuit television program can be. Interviewer Jenny Ornstein may talk with a trainer in the paddock before a race and ask him about his horse. Next up will be a film of the horse's previous race. After a race, Ornstein may go to the winner's circle to interview a jockey.
If it was done intelligently, such a program could be very informative. Two weeks ago at Pimlico, a filly named Sugarcone was making an apparent winning move when jockey Allen Stacy restrained her vigorously in the stretch, costing the people who had bet on her tens of thousands of dollars.
Bettors could only speculate why Stacy did what he did. (The Post's Vinnie Perrone reported the next day that Stacy felt the filly was breaking down.) An interviewer could have questioned Stacy on closed-circuit TV, who could have given an immediate explanation to irate fans. Workout Information. There is almost nothing that can enrage a horseplayer more than a race like the fifth at Laurel last Saturday. A first-time starter named A Joyful Danielle showed a string of lackluster workouts -- the best of them being a nondescript half mile in 49 3/5 -- but some insiders knew she was faster than this information suggested.
Money poured onto her, knocking her odds down to 2 to 1, and A Joyful Danielle sped the first half mile in 47 flat on a muddy track en route to an 11 1/2-length victory. To anybody who had bet against her, the Maryland racing industry was tacitly saying: tough luck, suckers.
It has always seemed inexplicable that a generally enlightened management would want to treat its customers this way and resist the creation of a system to ensure the proper identification of horses and an accurate reporting of workouts.
One reason surely has been the high cost of hiring clockers for three different training facilities -- Laurel, Bowie and Pimlico. Perhaps this is no longer a barrier. Japanese tracks are now using bar codes -- the same type that identifies your can of soup at Safeway -- to identify horses in morning workouts and clock their times electronically.
If such technology could be applied in this country, why can't Maryland be the first place to use it? In the Frank De Francis era, we would have expected no less.