- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

BALTIMORE — More than 100,000 fans will swarm every corner of Pimlico Race Course for today’s 128th Preakness Stakes. Another 10,000 will watch from Laurel Park, content to wager away from the crowds.

The annual spring party, with nearly 50,000 in the infield alone, produces a throwback to the massive post-War World II throngs that flooded racetracks before lotteries and casinos combined with televised sports and the Internet steadily eroded the fan base.

The Maryland Jockey Club is the nation’s oldest sports organization (1743) with George Washington even losing money on races through the cobblestone streets of Annapolis. Indeed, Marylanders joke of racing when Kentucky was an open prairie.

But “Old Hilltop” is getting too old for Pimlico to operate much longer without costly changes. The Maryland Jockey Club faces aging infrastructure and increased gaming and entertainment options in its bid to retain its daily core. Attendance at the tracks is again down to the “Faithful 5,000” of the early 1980s preceding the last “Maryland Miracle” resurgence.

Regaining the fans may be tougher than picking the Preakness trifecta, though. Industry leaders talk of building one “supertrack” instead of rebuilding two aging faculties. Bowie Training Center may one day yield to a new facility or expanded Laurel Park. Building slot-machine facilities could overshadow racing venues like West Virginia’s Charles Town Races, where less than 10 percent of the daily 15,000 watch the horses instead of pulling slot levers.

However, Maryland finally found its “white knight” in November when Magna Entertainment Corp. purchased Laurel and Pimlico for more than $120 million. Maryland is now part of a 15-track empire of the nation’s leading racing company, which plans to market globally in coming years. Magna already pledged $47 million to begin restoring Laurel and another extensive plan to be soon presented for Pimlico. Eventually, the price tag for both tracks could exceed more than $200 million over the next decade.

“This is a finely tuned jigsaw puzzle,” Magna President Jim McAlpine said. “You need to be in a position to put on the show and not shut down. Rebuilding multiple racetracks is an incredibly complicated process.

“This industry has been in decline for 50 years. It’s not our goal to keep it in decline or even hold the status quo. It’s our goal to substantially improve it.”

Finally, there is money to revive the once-strongest Mid-Atlantic racing state, which has been overshadowed by Delaware in recent years after the latter gained slot machines at its tracks. Instead of patchwork renovations, the entire Pimlico plant could be razed. That may send the Preakness to Laurel Park for one year as soon as 2005.

“With our tradition, the only thing missing is turbo-charged fuel and we’re right back,” said Maryland Million Vice President Mike Pons. The Maryland Million is a one-day program at Pimlico similar to the Breeders Cup. “We have the infrastructure and the know-how, we just need a few more dollars in the coffer. Magna has the capital. They’re going to be thinking horses first, which is a good thing for us.”

Magna Chairman Frank Stronach built a billion-dollar auto-parts empire from his garage. Now the horseman is rebuilding the nation’s racing with a television racing network, Xpress Bet home wagering and integrated simulcasting that links the company’s tracks nationwide. However, Maryland Jockey Club President Joe De Francis said Mr. Stronach isn’t an unconditional savior. He may want to turn racetracks into “entertainment destinations” that including shopping and nightlife options, but won’t fund a loser.

“It’s not Christmas. They’re not Santa Claus. They’re not philanthropists,” Mr. De Francis said. “They’re businessmen. They have access to capital that is far greater than what we had as a small family-held company. It will allow us to make improvements that we would have only dreamed about.”

Mr. McAlpine dispelled industry rumors that Mr. De Francis and his sister — Vice President Karin De Francis — would be leaving in coming months.

“Don’t see something that doesn’t exist,” Mr. McAlpine said. “Joe and his family have done a great job keeping this place together. Joe’s stuck with it. Lots of people with the difficulty and adversity in the sport might have given up. Joe’s not a quitter.”

Mr. De Francis is used to racetrack gossip concerning his future. He has been a lightning rod for dissent among racing and political leaders since succeeding his late father, Frank De Francis, in 1989, but has modernized the tracks’ approach to wagering needed over recent years.

“I hear all kinds of crazy rumors,” he said, “but anybody who has been around the racetrack knows there’s one rumor for everything. I don’t place much stock in rumors.”

Mr. McAlpine said Magna is amid a “watching brief” that will monitor the front office, but doesn’t foresee massive changes.

“It’s never been our position to walk in and turn over a racetrack,” he said. “We invest in the racetracks. We work with the local management people and bring about changes that need to be brought about, and in a perfect world, everyone carries on. We have a goal and the goal is to resurrect horse racing as a major international sport. We’ll do whatever it takes.”

As for Pimlico, Preakness fans will see another layer of decay on some seldom-used sections awaiting heavy renovations. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, is in the midst of a $127 million makeover through 2005, so rebuilding Pimlico won’t be easy. Indeed, some fans may even miss the old facility that opened in 1871.

“It’s like Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium. There’s so much history here,” Mr. Pons said. “Mention Pimlico around the world and people know where you are. Few tracks have that distinction.”

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