- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Maryland racing's annual two minutes of fame come Saturday when more than 100,000 will jam Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore for the 127th Preakness Stakes. But can the aging facility continue to accommodate the state's largest sporting event? After years of persistent rumors, are Pimlico and Laurel Park for sale ? Is it possible to consolidate to one track?
Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis spoke with The Washington Times racing writer Rick Snider about many subjects ranging from the tracks' future to the possibility of home wagering and a racing museum to off-track betting expansion to the loss of the Pimlico Special to who will win the Preakness .


Q: Sale rumors bloom every spring at the Preakness. In fact, there are reports you're ready to announce the sale of a minority partnership to Magna Entertainment Corp. this week. Are the tracks for sale? Is it contingent on your retaining daily control?
A: My father [Frank De Francis] said everything he had in life was for sale except his family and good name. My sister [Karin De Francis] and I are 100 percent committed to what we're doing. We've been approached by several substantial entities, but beyond that I have no further comment.

Q: After a 1998 fire, the Fairgrounds in New Orleans was rebuilt into a much smaller, simulcasting-oriented venue. Meanwhile, Churchill Downs is spending $120 million to refurbish an old facility that a top official said is like "building a church for Easter Sunday." What is Pimlico's future as the outdated home of a race that attracts 100,000?
A: The quote for Easter Sunday is an interesting analogy. The most important function Pimlico performs is to host the second jewel of the Triple Crown. When we look at rebuilding or dramatically renovating the facility our first priority has to be that. We have over 100,000 people here. That is a dramatically different use than 60 days of racing and 300 days of simulcasting.

Q: There has been talk about a "supertrack" near the Inner Harbor. You've even said the state should pay for it like the football and baseball stadiums. Is it feasible in the near future?
A: When people start blue skying, all types of different ideas come to the table. The fundamental problem is the difference in the amount of land needed for a race track compared to a stadium. Having worked with [late Washington Redskins owner] Jack Kent Cooke when we were going to put the football stadium at Laurel, a new stadium is about 18 acres. The footprint for a state-of-the-art racetrack with 11/4-mile dirt oval and a mile turf course inside it is 80 to 90 acres and then parking lots and stable area. If someone can show me where that land exists downtown then I'll be delighted to look at it. It's just not there.

Q: What about consolidation? Laurel handles more money and yet Pimlico has the Preakness. Is it feasible to operate one track year-round?
A: I wouldn't say it's impossible, but it's not where we're looking towards the future. You have two different metropolitan areas that are very different. Pimlico is the host of the Preakness and has to accommodate 100,000. Those demands are very different than the needs of year-round racing. While there is a lot of simplistic appeal to consolidate into one, our main focus is how we keep both Pimlico and Laurel viable.

Q:Now that Delaware Park owner William Rickman has a license to open a fair track in Western Maryland, how does that affect Maryland racing? He's looking to create more [off-track betting parlors] and a fair meeting. The fact that you've built only three OTBs has been a source of industry criticism.
A: We hope to significantly expand the OTB network throughout the state, especially in the Baltimore-Washington coordinator. The one track that Mr. Rickman owns (Ocean Downs) and one to construct [in Western Maryland] are at the far ends of the state so I don't see any conflict with him.

Q: Is account wagering on the horizon? Why isn't it already here after it was approved by the legislature in 1985? When can Maryland fans watch and bet races from home?
A: We've been conducting account wagering for some time now. We have a deal with TVG that is on a significant number of cable systems in the state and they have accounts. We have ExpressBet and major system operators so account wagering is here. I do not expect that we will develop a separate Maryland Jockey Club wagering system because other larger entities like TVG have already developed systems that are larger than we can do. I see us working through them to take advantage of this tool.

Q:The cancellation of the Pimlico Special leaves Maryland racing with only two Grade I races. Like the defunct Washington, D.C. International, the loss leaves a void of major racing. Is it really worth it, in the grand scheme, to lose a major race to offset purse shortfalls that result in only a few more dollars per race?
A:It was worth it to lose a major race to create peace within the industry. The single biggest criticism of the industry has been the constant infighting within the industry. We have to create peace. This was an extremely important issue to the horsemen. There had to be some compromise. If you left the decision to me, then my personal opinion is we're better off putting the money into a Grade I race with the national implications the Special had. But do you want to continue waging war with the horsemen's association over this issue and a number of others? The benefits the industry will achieve through peace is well worth the price of giving up the race for one year. The race will come back in 2003.

Q:Churchill Downs has a racing museum that has become a major tourist attraction in Louisville while Pimlico has a very small room for its Hall of Fame. Given Maryland was racing long before Kentucky, is it possible to create a major racing museum?
A: Blue sky, yes. The issue is where is the funding is going to come from to make the physical improvements. There has to be some reasonable prospect of return.

Q:You've cashed triples tickets on big races. Who do you like in the Preakness?
A: It will be one of the most competitive betting races we've ever had. War Emblem and Proud Citizen ran huge races in the Derby. When a Hall of Fame trainer like Bobby Frankel runs Medaglia d'Oro back in two weeks [from the Derby] and says he's going to win the Preakness you have to pay attention because he doesn't do that often. Picking among those will be very tough.


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