Sunday, February 14, 2010

Maryland Bidders Respond to Blood-Horse Queries

Three of the leading bidders for the Maryland Jockey Club's assets -- Jeff Seder of Blow Horn Equity LLC, David Cordish of the Cordish Companies, and Joe DeFrancis -- have each responded to questions posed by The Blood-Horse's Evan Hammonds. While the answers all contain a fair bit of puffery, the three interviews do show some fundamental differences in orientation. It probably won't matter a lot in the bankruptcy court. The court's job is to get the most money it can for Magna Entertainment's creditors, rather than worrying about the future of Maryland racing. But it's still instructive to analyze those differences, if only so we have some idea what to expect once we know who the winning bidder is.

[For those who want to read the full interviews, they can be found here (Seder), here (Cordish) and here (DeFrancis). For a quick way to decide who'd be best for Maryland racing, just look at the photos and see who you're most likely to trust.]

Disclosure: I've worked with and for Jeff Seder for a number of years and consider him a friend.

The three interviews aren't precisely comparable, since The Blood-Horse's Hammonds didn't ask each bidder the same five questions, but there are some areas in which we can compare the three.

First, qualifications. Cordish touts the 100-year history of his family real estate firm, which has more recently expanded into restaurant and entertainment ventures, including the Baltimore Live! complex on that city's inner harbor. No mention of any racing-related experience. DeFrancis, in contrast, has lots of experience. He notes that he and his sister Karen "have almost a half-century of experience in the business of managing racetracks." Into the ground. Seder hasn't (yet) run a racetrack, but he's spent a lifetime around thoroughbreds, developed a slew (sic) of scientific tools for evaluating their performance, and has hands-on experience in running medium-sized businesses, which is what the MJC is.

Second, how do they view the racing component of what they're bidding for? DeFrancis claims that "no other bidder will try harder or care more about making Maryland racing successful than we will." A nice sentiment, and it's true that his family has been involved with Maryland racing for years, but, unfortunately, as part of the problem, not the solution. Seder makes the point that, except for DeFrancis, the other bidders are real estate developers and casino operators, who would probably view racing as a necessary inconvenience. Cordish talks about promoting big weekends, like the Preakness and Maryland Million, but is a bit vague on the extent to which he'd want to keep anything like the current number of racing days.

Third, all three bidders see the need for major upgrading of the Laurel and Pimlico facilities. Cordish plans to build his major entertainment complex around the slots palace at his Arundel Mills Mall, rather than at Laurel, but says the requisite words about upgrading the track facilities. Seder would emphasize making the tracks themselves much more attractive places to be, whether or not they end up with slots on the premises. DeFrancis admits the need for upgrading, but gives it less emphasis than either of the other two bidders.

Fourth -- I finally found an aspect of the interviews that really separates the bidders -- their favorite Preakness moment (that's the one question that Hammonds asked all three). For Seder, it's a close-up view of Afleet Alex's remarkable recovery from a near-fall -- all about the athleticism and courage o thoroughbreds. For DeFrancis, it was the epic Easy Goer-Sunday Silence battle in 1989, another great racing moment. And for Cordish? "Partying in the infield." Maybe he was one of those guys that I used to see, when I was watching from the grandstand, peeing on the outside of the porta-potties because the lines were too long.

All in all, you can't tell a whole lot from the Larry King-like softballs that Hammonds pitched to the MJC bidders and those bidders' answers. But there's nothing in the interviews to change the basic conclusions: Cordish cares about real estate and entertainment development, preferably at his mall and not at the track. DeFrancis may legitimately care about Maryland racing, but he had his chance, and look where we are now. That leaves Jeff Seder, who knows a thing or two about racing and race horses, and who's made a success of several other businesses. Now all he needs is enough money to outbid the others.

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