- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

Magna Entertainment president Frank Stronach says he plans to spend big money to turn Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course into "entertainment destinations" and will not try to move the Preakness Stakes.
The incoming owner of the Maryland Jockey Club said yesterday he plans to spend millions of dollars to revitalize aging facilities at the two tracks, adding shopping and entertainment venues in an effort to convert a wider cross section of fans into racegoers.
Magna Entertainment, a Canadian firm that owns 14 tracks in the United States, purchased controlling interest in the Jockey Club on Monday in a deal worth $117.5million. The Maryland Racing Commission is expected to approve the sale in the next few months.
"At one time, Maryland was one of the major racing centers," Stronach said, "but it has been somewhat neglected over the last 20 years. In all fairness, [Jockey Club president] Joe [De Francis] is a good guy, but he didn't have enough money."
Stronach said he envisions making the major infrastructure improvements needed to lure the Breeders' Cup championships to Pimlico and increase business for everyday racing. He doesn't want to become dependent upon slot machines, but he expects to make a push for them when the state legislature returns in January.
Stronach said he relishes owning the Preakness Stakes and said the Triple Crown race won't be moved from Pimlico. The Preakness has drawn more than 100,000 fans to the Baltimore track in each of the past three years.
Statehouse approval would be needed to move the Preakness from Baltimore to another site in Maryland, and the legislature, by statute, has the right to match any offer to prevent the race from being sold to an out-of-state track.
No major stakes race has ever been sold, so it's difficult to estimate how much the Preakness would fetch. The race brings about $7million each year to Maryland, but the prestige of owning a Triple Crown race is impossible to measure in dollars.
A purchase by the legislature is unlikely given that there's no state-owned track in Maryland.
"The Preakness still means a lot to this sport and we love having one of the classics," Stronach said. "You can't move it. What you can do is bring back the glamour."
The 69-year-old Austrian is an ardent racing fan who also owns horses. Magna Entertainment owns Gulfstream Park in Florida and Santa Anita Park in California. Stronach's Red Bullet won the 2000 Preakness, and his stable competes in major races worldwide. He has been named outstanding breeder and owner in both the United States and Canada.
Stronach says his main goal is to restore racing nationwide to the heights it enjoyed in the 1950s, when weekend crowds swelled tracks. His XpressBet simulcasting system will showcase Maryland racing, along with other Magna tracks.
Many Maryland horsemen and officials are cautiously optimistic that Stronach will carry out needed track improvements promised by De Francis. The grandstand windows at Laurel began popping out last year, forcing protective scaffolding to be erected along the stretch of the 91-year-old track. Pimlico's 98-year-old facilities require significant overhauls. De Francis once projected that $120million would be needed to modernize the two facilities. Magna's deep pockets could fund some of the projects.
"If Stronach spends $7million and fixes all the mess at Laurel and builds a paddock at Pimlico, he'd look like a hero, a savior to Maryland racing," Maryland breeder Mike Pons said. "We've been waiting for it. We've been promised it for years, but Joe didn't have the dough to deliver. Magna does."
Those upgrades could bring the Breeders' Cup, perhaps racing's second-most important event after the Kentucky Derby, to Pimlico by 2010. Cup sources said they would be interested in awarding the annual fall championship card to Pimlico after improvements are made to the backstretch.
Last year De Francis requested the written criteria that would be needed to gain the event. Monmouth Park in Oceanside, N.J., is considered the front-runner among Middle Atlantic tracks to get the race. Magna's Santa Anita and Lone Star Park will host the Breeders' Cup in 2003 and 2004, respectively.
Stronach said he would be very interested in gaining the event.
But Stronach has detractors, including several Maryland Racing Commission members who complained Gulftream's recent poor winter meeting under Magna didn't bode well for Maryland tracks under Stronach.
Stronach balked over criticism of Gulfstream's wagering downturn, saying nearby Hialeah Park's closing created a chronic lack of stable space needed for larger daily cards. Stronach has since bought 400 acres near the Hallandale, Fla., track for a training center that opens this fall.
"There were a lot of cheap shots," Stronach said. "They said we haven't done anything, but we spent $40 million at Santa Anita. They said we did a bad job at Gulfstream, but there was a stable shortage. I didn't let Hialeah run down. Now we're building the finest training center."
Allowing slot machines at racetracks and several off-track parlors is expected to be one of the leading legislative issues in Maryland next year no matter who wins the Nov.5 gubernatorial election. Democratic front-runner Kathleen Kennedy Townsend opposes slots. Republican challenger Robert Ehrlich endorses them.
Maryland racing leaders believe approval of slots is the only way for the state's race industry to remain among national leaders, much less retain its historic role as the Middle Atlantic front-runner.
"We can't be too dependent on slots," Stronach said. "I like racing. I think we have to make it more exciting. Temporarily, slots would help us compete, but getting people [to the tracks] because of slots would be wrong. I'm concerned it would neglect live racing."
Stronach said he expected the Jockey Club's front office staff to remain, though Magna has made changes after previous takeovers. De Francis and his sister, Karin, will remain president and vice president, respectively, through at least 2006, when a buyout is possible. They also could sell before that date.
"Joe and I have a respectful relationship," Stronach said. "We'll have meetings. I'm optimistic I'll spend a lot of time with him."


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