- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 13, 2002

The Maryland Racing Commission is expected to approve the sale of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course today, but it is considering withholding the racing dates for 2003 until it receives guarantees that the Preakness Stakes will remain in Baltimore and the two aging tracks will be refurbished.
The state's breeders and horsemen will not oppose the $117million deal that gave Magna Entertainment majority control of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel and Pimlico, when the nine-member panel convenes today at Laurel.
Magna largely has won over skeptics with its plans to revitalize the antiquated tracks nearly four months after the Canadian corporation reached agreement on the blockbuster deal that increased its total of U.S. and Canadian tracks to 13.
"I don't know if it's a rubber stamp, but it should be," said former Pimlico general manager Chick Lang on the prospect of approval by the commission. "We've been looking for somebody with deep pockets who can put Maryland racing back in power. Now Mr.Deep Pockets comes along and they want to question whether he'll move the Preakness or said this or that?"
Two commission members have questioned whether Magna will fulfill the promises made by chairman Frank Stronach, who said he would replace Pimlico with a modern facility. Industry sources said the commission will not approve racing dates for 2003 until it gets a bond of more than $10million to ensure that Laurel gets a new turf course, a new paddock is installed at Pimlico and improvements are made on the backstretch at both tracks.
Otherwise, Laurel would close Jan.1 until it receives the commission's approval to restart. The panel also wants assurances that the Preakness will remain at Pimlico and the summer circuit with Virginia will continue.
A Magna spokeswoman declined to comment. However, Stronach has said he has no intention of moving the Preakness, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown that generates more than $7million and attracts 100,000 racegoers each year. Recently, Stronach sent 11 horses to Maryland trainer Dick Small, who campaigned major stakes winners Broad Brush and Concern.
Magna, the largest track operator in North America, has spent $381million over the past four years to acquire eight thoroughbred tracks, harness and greyhound tracks, an off-track betting network and an interest in a cable racing network. It recently bought Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas, for $99million.
Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis sees approval by the commission as a formality. The deal would be closed in a few weeks after getting approval from the commission.
"It should be a very straightforward preceding," De Francis said. "The law is very clear to the scope of the commission's inquiry. They're supposed to assess Magna's character and moral suitability to be a licensee. That's a no-brainer. They're licensed in a dozen states."
Some commissioners are upset by Magna's recent decision to delay $140million in renovations to Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla. Magna instead is building a $65million training center to compensate for the closing of Hialeah Park, which left Gulfstream with small fields because of the inadequate capacity of local stables.
The commission also will seek Magna's opinions on the use of slot machines, which is expected to be approved next year by the Maryland legislature. Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich supports slots, which could come as soon as July1 with the approval of emergency legislation. The slots are expected to be limited at first to the state's thoroughbred and harness tracks and, according to one study, would generate $1billion annually.
Magna is a racing-first company, though its pending purchase of Flamboro Downs in Ontario includes 750 slots. However, Stronach has said he would be open to adding slots at the Maryland tracks. Already, track sources said Pimlico and Laurel could build new slot parlors within their plants in three months. Legislative approval for slots must come before the session ends April7, so the construction timetable would be compatible with the potential July1 legalization date for slots.
The slots windfall could propel Maryland racing to a place among the national leaders. Delaware and West Virginia tracks were nearly shuttered in recent years but saw five-fold increases in their purses after they began using slots, increases that lured many Maryland stables to those tracks. Now slot profits could pay for needed major infrastructure improvements and raise purses dramatically to keep local horsemen in Maryland.
"I've been dancing on top of the car and house I'm upbeat," Lang said. "I'm tired of negative nits that are ripping Maryland racing. The new owner has billions of dollars, the slot legislation seems able to pass and if people don't become pigs and start fighting, two years from now we'll be in the land of milk and honey."
Said De Francis: "In five years this is going to be a renaissance the likes of which will exceed our wildest thoughts."
No immediate changes are expected in the Jockey Club's front office, though De Francis and his sister, Karin De Francis, will become minority partners when Magna acquires 58 percent of Laurel and 51 percent of Pimlico. However, Magna has made management changes after other acquisitions. Racing leaders believe some moves are inevitable.
"With new ownership, new expectations from fans and the state legislature and bills on slot machines, it can't be business as usual, nor should it be," said Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

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