Pimlico's future

August 06, 2002

IT COULD BE a futuristic vision. Or a delusive mirage. Either way, entrepreneur Frank Stronach's notion of razing Pimlico Race Course and rebuilding it into an entertainment colossus should be enough to jolt Marylanders from summer languor. And it just might be the way to resuscitate the state's struggling racing industry.

Mr. Stronach now must provide details, details and more details:

Would racing still be the centerpiece of the multi-purpose complex or merely a sideshow after the once-a-year Preakness extravaganza?

How much would Pimlico's rebuilding cost?

Would taxpayers be asked to pay for it?

How would he guarantee that the Old Hilltop is rebuilt once the demolition permit is given?

These are points that Mr. Stronach must clarify. He should be ready to do so when the Maryland Racing Commission considers his Magna Entertainment Corp.'s request to acquire majority control of Pimlico and Laurel from the Maryland Jockey Club.

In an interview with The Sun's Tom Keyser, Mr. Stronach said he plans to demolish the current Pimlico after the 2004 Preakness and open the new complex two years later. Such an optimistic timetable may be Mr. Stronach's way of signaling to Maryland regulators that they had better approve his Pimlico takeover without delay.

In fewer than four years, Magna has bought 14 tracks that it hopes to turn into entertainment destinations offering live shows, shopping and gourmet dining. It also has bought a telephone betting service as part of an aggressive strategy aimed at bringing round-the-clock betting to a worldwide audience through the Internet and satellite television.

The racing industry and investment analysts are sharply divided about Mr. Stronach's chances for success. His acolytes think the Canadian is a genius; his detractors predict he is building a house of cards that will eventually collapse under a huge debt burden.

Pimlico's golden era ended in 1966, when a fire of unknown origin destroyed the members' clubhouse, a fanciful Victorian creation that had been American racing's oldest structure still in use. There have been plenty of glory moments since then, but also rocky roads. The site is ripe for an overhaul.

But horse racing should be at the heart of Pimlico if it is reconstructed. If you pass by the North Baltimore course today, though, a giant concert pavilion is taking shape there. It will be used later this month for the three-day Harley Davidson "Open Road Tour" music extravaganza, featuring Bob Dylan, Hootie and the Blowfish, Ted Nugent and others.

That may be a harbinger of things to come, and would be a welcome one if such programs can peacefully coexist with Pimlico's primary purpose - which is to be a first-class race course.

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