02/22/2002 12:00AM

Churchill bid for Pimlico rebuffed

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Churchill Downs recently attempted to buy Maryland's major tracks but was unable to strike a deal with their president, Joseph DeFrancis, who did not want to relinquish control. DeFrancis owns the controlling share of stock in both Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, known collectively as the Maryland Jockey Club.

Talks between DeFrancis and Churchill president Thomas H. Meeker have occurred periodically over the years but grew more intense in December, only to falter, resume, and falter again in recent weeks over the issue of control, according to sources familiar with negotiations.

DeFrancis, whose stewardship of the tracks has attracted widespread criticism, would not discuss specifics of the negotiations. But he said yesterday, "We have had discussions with Churchill Downs. Those discussions have not resulted in any transaction and are not ongoing."

Churchill has bought a number of tracks in the past three years.

"We have said we are aggressively looking for acquisitions and other business arrangements in the Thoroughbred industry that fit into our strategic plan," said a Churchill senior vice president, Karl F. Schmitt Jr. "Beyond that, our policy is not to comment on potential acquisitions."

DeFrancis said Churchill is one of "several substantial entities" that has shown interest in buying a stake in the tracks.

Magna Entertainment, also has made inquiries, sources said. Magna owner Frank Stronach did not respond Thursday to a request for comment but has publicly expressed interest in the Maryland tracks in the past.

DeFrancis has sought a buyer for the minority share of the tracks owned by LUK-Flats LLC, a subsidiary of Leucadia National Corp., a New York investment firm, according to sources. Leucadia emerged as a friendly investor in 1998, but relations between it and DeFrancis have soured. Neither can sell the Leucadia shares without the permission of the other.

- Jon Morgan and Tom Keyser

(c) 2001, The Baltimore Sun