Betting on a vision

July 17, 2002

WITH THE SALE of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park to a free-spending Canadian entrepreneur, the romance of Maryland racing could flower anew.

Frank Stronach believes his Internet-driven vision of horse-race wagering in the 21st century will redefine the sport. And he's betting the purchase price of $50.6 million that Laurel and Pimlico can fill critical gaps in his plan. The tracks' principal owners, Joseph A. De Francis and his sister, Karin, will stay on to help run them.

New direction was desperately needed. State officials and the De Francis family seemed out of ideas, or out of sufficient money to pursue the ideas they had. The shaky moorings of the massive glass windows at Laurel came to symbolize the current difficulties.

The Stronach plan is largely untested, but he has provided a rich mix of vision, finances and strong management. His attempt to corral large segments of the racing industry will, he hopes, produce a self-contained racing and betting network surfacing on desktop computers and specialty TV networks. To make it sell, he'll need quality racing -- so his goals and those of the Maryland horse industry seem perfectly aligned.

Mr. Stronach's company, Magna Entertainment Corp., wants to combine the speed and power of the live race with shopping, fine dining and other attractions in Las Vegas-style venues. The company spent $45 million to this end at Santa Anita in California, and it has promised similar expenditures at Gulfstream Park in Florida.

Magna tracks already account for more than a quarter of the money bet on thoroughbred racing each year in North America, and the company aims to push that figure to 40 percent. Pimlico and Laurel can help because their race schedules fill in summer and fall openings on the Magna calendar. With more viewers -- and at-home Internet betters -- the company expects to produce its own self-contained betting network. But many challenges await each of the parties:

The Maryland Racing Commission is expected to demand a formal commitment from Magna to keep the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. Maryland's horse industry, not always the most flexible partner, must show it can meet the demands of a sport rapidly losing its paying customers. Mr. De Francis, who knew as well as his critics that change was needed, now has an opportunity to show that given sufficient resources he can develop and run a first-class operation. And Magna, for its part, must follow through on its commitment to put state-of-the-art facilities at both of its new Maryland tracks.

Once those challenges are met, a new chemistry of vision, leadership and money could produce a new day for Maryland racing.

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