Updated on 09/16/2011 7:49AM

To De Francis/Magna: Please play nice


BALTIMORE - When the bride and groom are walking down the aisle, neither is likely to think they might be fighting like alley cats once the honeymoon is over.

In the same spirit, Joe De Francis and the Magna Entertainment Corporation were filled with optimism and amity when they announced their corporate marriage Monday. At a news conference, they talked about the wonderful possibilities ahead: An infusion of capital could improve the facilities at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course; the Maryland tracks could prosper by their inclusion in a television network devoted to Magna; the tracks could be transformed into multipurpose "entertainment centers."

Yet people who have observed the partners in this union wonder if there is a more fundamental issue to be faced: Can the two sides manage to get along with each other?

The potential for discord is obvious. Joe De Francis has always been the total boss of the Maryland Jockey Club - the principal owner and chief executive. Now he remains the president, but above him is an owner holding 51 percent of the stock. Magna is accustomed to total control, too, and it is quick to fire employees with whom it is dissatisfied. But now it has an untouchable manager with a five-year contract and a 49 percent interest in the business.

This awkward-looking arrangement came about because De Francis needed someone to buy out his discontented minority partners. Churchill Downs Inc. was eager to purchase Laurel and Pimlico, but negotiations broke down last year over the issue of De Francis's role. If Churchill was going to spend $100 million for an acquisition, it intended to run the company its own way. But De Francis and his sister, Karin, didn't want to let go of the reins; the Maryland tracks are too much a part of their life and their late father's legacy.

Churchill's position was surely understandable, since Maryland racing has suffered a steady decline under De Francis's management. Many of the problems aren't his fault, but his regime failed to exploit good opportunities after the state legalized offtrack betting and telephone wagering. De Francis has had bad relationships with other players in the industry, notably the state's horsemen and Gov. Parris Glendening. What buyer would make a huge investment in Maryland racing and leave him in charge?

Magna would. The Canadian company has been eager to acquire new tracks at almost any price, and its chairman, Frank Stronach, coveted the prestige of being associated with one of the Triple Crown races. So Magna gave De Francis a dream deal, paying more than Churchill Downs and still guaranteeing that De Francis would be in charge for five years.

This is anything but a typical deal for Magna and Stronach, who have acquired reputations as mercurial owners who hire and fire executives at the drop of a hat. Magna itself has had four chief executives in three years.

In the three years that Magna has operated Gulfstream Park, the relationship between management and the parent company appears somewhat dysfunctional. The track has had three presidents during this period, and Magna's readiness to replace executives seems to discourage them from taking bold or risky initiatives. Magna evidently calls the shots anyway. In March 2001 I interviewed track president Scott Savin about Gulfstream's plans. He said its top priority was the construction of a simulcasting pavilion - a project that would start within a couple of weeks. More than a year later, there is no sign of a simulcasting pavilion, suggesting that communication between management and bureaucracy is not always perfect.

De Francis insists he is unworried about his relationship with the parent company. "One of the great things about this company is that there is not a lot of bureaucracy," he insisted. Moreover, he pointed out, Magna is still young and developing its method of operations. "The company is barely four years old," De Francis said. "When they start to put it all together, you're going to see a major impact."

Even though De Francis appears convinced he will have a comfortable coexistence with Magna, Marylanders know too well the dangers inherent in a contentious relationship at the top. When Joe De Francis succeeded his late father, Frank, he was running the Maryland Jockey Club in tandem with his father's partners, Tom and Bob Manfuso. Their relationship soon became so acrimonious - and litigious - that it consumed them. De Francis was more focused on battling the Manfusos than running the tracks. Employees were demoralized, and customers were able to perceive that the atmosphere had turned poisonous. That era of bad feeling undermined De Francis's stewardship of the Maryland tracks, and the decline of Maryland racing can be dated from that point.

The last thing the troubled industry needs now is a repeat of those battles at the top. For the sake of the sport, Magna and De Francis better have a long honeymoon and an amicable marriage.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post