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Pimlico CEO Wants Uneventful Race

May 13, 2000

BALTIMORE (AP) _ A nice, uneventful afternoon of horse racing next Saturday would suit Joe De Francis just fine.

The majority owner and chief executive officer of Pimlico Race Course has endured more than enough distractions over the past two years on Preakness Day.

A power outage shut down several banks of betting windows in 1998, costing Pimlico millions in revenue on its biggest day of the season. Last year, a spectator ran onto the track and stood in front of the charging horses before taking a swing at one of them.

The last thing De Francis needs for the 125th running of the Preakness Stakes is another unexpected event overshadowing the race.

``We wouldn’t mind an exciting day,″ De Francis said, ``but most of all we’d certainly like all the focus to be on racing, not on any extraneous occurrence, as it has been the last two years.″

The power outage was the fault of Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., which experienced an overload on the uncharacteristically hot afternoon. De Francis has since had the power company replace all its equipment at the track. Pimlico also spent more than $1 million to install backup generators and emergency lighting.

``So if there’s another event like there was two years ago, at the very least the impact on our customers will be minimized,″ De Francis said. ``Of course, we’re crossing all our fingers and toes, hoping that something like that doesn’t happen again.″

After the fan ran on the track last year, there will be more security officers around the perimeter of the infield, ``just in case there’s a copycat lunatic that wants to pull the same stunt,″ De Francis said.

Some say that the 130-year-old track is no longer in good enough condition to host one of the three legs of the Triple Crown. Pimlico, which has not undergone major improvements since 1954, was recently cited for several fire-code violations and ordered to correct 10 flaws in time for the Preakness.

Many of the barns remain in a state of disrepair, causing at least one owner to express concern over the safety of the horses.

``The track needs a lot of work. The age is showing,″ said Jeanne Vance, whose horse, Lemon Drop Kid, occupied a stall in the Stakes Barn this week.

``If they want to keep the Preakness at Pimlico, they’ve got to do something. This is one of the nicer barns, but you go over to the other side and it’s bad. It’s dangerous,″ she said.

De Francis said improvements are on the way. His lobbying for gambling on the site has so far been a failure. But Gov. Parris Glendening signed legislation Thursday that creates a bond fund designed to provide Pimlico and nearby Laurel Park with $30 million for repairs.

That, combined with another $30 million worth of repairs funded by track ownership, will help bring Pimlico into the 21st century.

De Francis has never denied that the track was in dire need of an overhaul. He said, however, that until recently he simply couldn’t afford it.

``This bill won’t solve every single problem. It would cost $100 million to rip the place down to the foundation,″ he said. ``But we will be able to do an awful lot. At the very least, we can make Pimlico both attractive and functional.″

It’s about time.

``We’re talking about one of the oldest tracks in the country,″ said Jimmy Jackson, owner of Allen’s Oop, an entrant in the Pimlico Special. ``They’re trying to update it and clean it up, which is nice because it could use it.″

A successful Preakness would go a long way toward building a safer, better Pimlico.

``Preakness Day makes it financially possible for us to be in a position to invest the $30 million in the plan,″ De Francis said. ``If we can avoid the craziness we endured the past two years, we’re on our way.″

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