- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 14, 2002

The Maryland Racing Commission yesterday gave unanimous approval to the sale of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course to a Canadian company after it guaranteed $15million in long-needed track improvements.

The $117million purchase of the two thoroughbred racetracks by Magna Entertainment was approved 9-0 by the commission after the corporation provided written assurances that it would make the improvements within 18 months.

The commission was prepared to delay awarding 2003 race dates unless it received guarantees that renovations long promised by the current owner the Maryland Jockey Club would begin. The panel approved the sale in less than an hour without dissent.

"We wanted clear financial commitments that we could rely on," commissioner Terry Saxon said. "We've had commitments in the past that were never followed up on, and we wanted to make sure that wasn't done again. In my mind, that $15million was critical because it addresses the backstretch problems."

The sale still must be approved by the Virginia Racing Commission on Nov.20 because the Maryland Jockey Club also runs a summer meeting at Colonial Downs in New Kent, Va. Magna president Jim McAlpine said the deal will be concluded in a few weeks.

McAlpine also assured commissioners that the Preakness Stakes would remain in Maryland, calling it the "Crown Jewel of Magna." However, he conceded that the $100million rebuilding of Pimlico could force relocation of the middle jewel of the Triple Crown to Laurel.

McAlpine offered no timetable, but track sources said construction could force the 2005 Preakness to be run outside Old Hilltop for the first time since 1908. Pimlico's 90-day spring meeting also would be transferred to Laurel.

"You can't run races while you're totally rebuilding the facility," McAlpine said. "These facilities were built for massive crowds. Today you don't get massive crowds. Pimlico gets one great day for the Preakness. The facility needs to be totally redone."

Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis and vice president Karin De Francis remain on the scene under a four-year management contract. Joe De Francis said the sale was necessary because the family-owned business couldn't remain competitive. Magna now owns 13 tracks in North America.

"Single, independent racetracks can't survive anymore," he said. "You have to be part of an international company like Magna to have the resources, capital, technology and people to be able to make the investments and create things like a TV channel and XpressBet wagering. It opens a list of opportunities for Maryland. Let's rock and roll and get going."

McAlpine plans to increase off-track betting parlors statewide, plus Internet and telephone wagering. However, the possibility of slot machine approval by the state legislature next year already has racing leaders abuzz over the anticipated windfall.

McAlpine said slots are needed to remain competitive with Delaware and West Virginia. In those states, tracks went from nearly closed to five-fold overnight purse increases in recent years.

"We didn't get into the racetrack business to get into the slots but it certainly affects the competitiveness of Maryland racing," McAlpine said. "You'd like to think the government will address that issue. If they don't, what's happening today is, Maryland horses are running to other states for bigger purses and Maryland customers are going to the other states to gamble because they like to pull a one-arm bandit more than they like watching a horse race. The state is losing on all counts."

Said Alan Foreman, Maryland Thoroughbred Racing Association counsel: "Competitive forces in the region would make it difficult for any track operator to compete without gaining slots."

Meanwhile, Thunderello headlines Saturday's $300,000 Frank De Francis Dash that includes the $100,000 Laurel Dash as part of the six-stakes card. The 9-5 favorite was second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint on Oct.26.

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