Plans for Pimlico: raze and rebuild it

Prospective new owner would move Preakness to Laurel for one year

Help for neighborhood pledged

Racing commission's OK needed for proposed sale to Canadian company

August 05, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Racing magnate Frank Stronach said he wants to tear down Pimlico Race Course, build a new track on the same site and take steps to help its Northwest Baltimore neighborhood.

"I think the whole track needs to be torn down," said Stronach, chairman of Canadian-based Magna Entertainment Corp., which has reached an agreement with the Maryland Jockey Club to buy a majority share of Pimlico and Laurel Park.

"Pimlico must remain; there's too much tradition involved," he said. "But it would be totally rebuilt from scratch. We would flatten it completely."

Stronach made his remarks - his first public comment about specific plans for Pimlico - during an interview with The Sun on Saturday at the Saratoga racetrack here.

He said he would like the demolition to begin immediately after the Preakness in May. In 2004, the Preakness, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown, would be held at Laurel Park as a new Pimlico was constructed for the 2005 Preakness.

At the Pimlico site or on land Magna would acquire nearby, he wants to build a technical training center for "inner-city kids," Stronach said. The center would include a Magna plant where students would learn how to manufacture automotive parts. Stronach is also chairman of Magna International Inc., one of the world's largest suppliers of automotive parts.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday that Stronach called him several weeks ago about the concept.

"The idea of getting a company as dynamic and as cutting-edge as Magna to open a manufacturing plant in the city of Baltimore is a very exciting prospect," he said. "What does concern me is losing the Preakness, even for one year. But the idea of rebuilding Pimlico is very exciting."

Magna's agreement to buy 51 percent of Pimlico and Laurel Park in a deal valued at $117.5 million is subject to approval by the Maryland Racing Commission. Several members of the commission have expressed skepticism, noting unfulfilled promises at some of the 14 tracks Magna has bought or agreed to buy in the past four years.

Lou Ulman, commission chairman, said yesterday that Stronach's plan could be "a great thing" for Maryland.

"It sounds like something that, if done properly, would preserve Pimlico and be great for the city and great for Maryland racing," Ulman said. "But clearly, we would want to make sure if he tears down Pimlico he doesn't, for whatever reason, decide not to rebuild it."

Stronach said he would do whatever was necessary to offer such assurance. "We'll put up a bond or anything," he said. "We'll go way out of our way to assure people - the racing commission, horsemen - that we're committed to Pimlico. ... The racing world will look at us by what we do at Pimlico. It's a top priority."

Joseph A. De Francis, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns the tracks, said Stronach toured them four days after the deal was announced July 15. De Francis and his sister, Karin, would retain a minority interest in the tracks, and he would remain in charge of day-to-day management.

"It's extremely exciting and heartening that Maryland, and specifically Pimlico, are so high on Magna's international priority list," Joseph De Francis said. Pimlico, which opened in 1870, has fallen into disrepair and been roundly criticized as the home of the Preakness, especially after an electrical outage marred the event in 1998. Held the third Saturday of May, the race draws international attention and a rambunctious crowd of 100,000 to the track.

Magna's philosophy - that is, Stronach's philosophy - is to transform horse tracks into entertainment centers that include shops, restaurants, arcades and concerts. He also wants to make horse racing accessible to everyone with a TV or computer through Magna's creation of a home betting network.

Stronach said home betting on horse racing can be greatly expanded. "I think we can quadruple it, or maybe even increase it tenfold," Stronach said. "That's why we bought so many tracks, to be able to give the public a race every five minutes."

Stronach has been criticized for making sweeping promises at his tracks, especially Santa Anita Park in California and Gulfstream Park in Florida, then not keeping them or delaying their implementation.

"I think we've gotten very much unfair criticism. It's an industry that's been neglected for so long - 50, 60, 70 years. We can't correct everything overnight," Stronach said. "I'm sure in years to come, Maryland will say I made a great, great contribution to Maryland racing."

State and local elected officials said they had not previously heard of his plans for Pimlico but indicated that they were willing to listen and generally supportive of the company's efforts to revitalize horse racing.

"The track is very old, and it's been built on to and renovated and patched up," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Pimlico. "It probably would be more cost-effective to tear it down and start over."

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