The owners and trainers who are bringing their horses to the International Turf Festival this weekend will have varying degrees of success, but it is safe to predict that most of them will go home from Laurel feeling good about the experience.
There are no tracks in the United States -- and maybe none in the world -- that treat their participants in big races better than Laurel and Pimlico do. On Friday, owners involved in the International will be entertained at a black-tie dinner at the U.S. Capitol. On Saturday all the participants in the Turf Festival will be invited to a party at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Out-of-town visitors will check into their hotel rooms and find bottles of champagne, sets of wine glasses and plush terrycloth robes displaying the International logo. Pictures will be taken at the races so Laurel can later send its guests framed commemorative photographs of the occasion.
Newcomers to Laurel will be shown the track's physical facility -- the impressive first floor of the clubhouse with its marble surfaces and its waterfall; the "sky suite" that won a national design award; and, most notably, the Sports Palace, whose glitzy, Vegas-style decor, computer terminals and video-replay center make it a facility unique in American racing.
It is no coincidence the two most conspicuous selling points of Laurel -- its special events and its physical facilities -- are largely the work of the same person: vice president of marketing Lynda O'Dea. If she were a man, or perhaps if she weren't quite such a glamorous woman, she would be recognized unequivocally as one of the country's sharpest racing executives.
Instead, there are still plenty of people who might define her as the blonde who used to be Frank De Francis's girlfriend.
The lives of O'Dea and De Francis were intertwined, both personally and professionally, for 17 years until the death of the brilliant executive last summer. O'Dea had worked for him as the administrator of his charter-flight airline company until De Francis moved into a new business, buying a leaky-roofed harness track that he renamed Freestate Raceway.
"I thought Frank had lost his mind," O'Dea said. "I wanted no part of it." But De Francis prevailed on O'Dea to learn this new business from the ground up -- the mutuel operations, parking, admissions, everything. And she was put in charge of restyling the whole place, from the clubhouse dining room to the uniforms employees wore.
Freestate's spectacular success encouragedDe Francis to move into the thoroughbred business. By the time he bought Laurel, and then Pimlico, he had found an ace director of operations, Jim Mango, and he let O'Dea concentrate on design, marketing and special events.
She had a free hand, for De Francis viewed lavish expenditures in these areas as an investment in the future, not an indulgence. He saw the entertainment of owners and trainers as a way to keep luring them back with their good horses, and his son, Joe, who succeeded him, has embraced the same philosophy, because it works.
Last spring, for example, Canadian industrialist Frank Stronach sent a horse, Mi Selecto, to the Pimlico Special. Mi Selecto finished fourth, but Stronach's racing manager, Don Amos, said: "De Francis's people did a terrific job. They were so hospitable." Two months later, Stronach sent a division of horses to be based permanently in Maryland. Such are the dividends of the hospitality O'Dea orchestrates.
But the Sports Palace demonstrated O'Dea's skills most vividly. Frank De Francis wanted to attract the general sports fans to watch televised football games at the track instead of their living room and, O'Dea said, "He wanted to do something extremely dramatic."
The execution of that vision was left entirely up to O'Dea, who said, "Casinos spend millions on glitz and comfort and tracks never did. Tracks lost charisma and they lost gamblers to Atlantic City. That's how the whole casino style of the Sports Palace came out. I wondered what we could do to excite people, and I came up with the idea of computers and the video library. It was a way of saying that racing can be futuristic and high-tech."
When De Francis bought Pimlico, O'Dea designed a Sports Palace there that topped her own act at Laurel, as well as bringing some style and comfort to Pimlico's once-barnlike grandstand.
Before the construction of the Sports Palace, even O'Dea acknowledges outsiders might have harbored doubts about the legitimacy of a female executive who was romantically linked with the boss. "I understand that my position was unclear. When you're female and you're blond, people might question what your real value is. But after the Sports Palace I felt that I had gotten beyond that."
Sexual stereotypes are hard to erase and there still may be some doubters who can't take O'Dea as seriously as a they would a male executive in a pinstriped suit. But the doubters won't include any of the visitors who enjoy the glitz and glamour of the International Turf Festival this weekend.