Promise of rebuilt Pimlico raises hopes, and eyebrows

Though change welcome, some horsemen skeptical Magna goal will turn real

August 06, 2002|By Tom Keyser and Ken Murray | Tom Keyser and Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Prominent trainers along with local and national racing figures welcomed the prospect of a rebuilt Pimlico yesterday, but several greeted the news with skepticism.

They expressed keen awareness of Magna Entertainment Corp.'s grand promises at other tracks that have gone unfulfilled. Frank Stronach, chairman of Magna, said Saturday that he wants to tear down Pimlico and rebuild it on the same site.

The Canadian-based Magna has signed a deal with the Maryland Jockey Club to buy a controlling interest in Pimlico and Laurel Park. The agreement is subject to approval by the Maryland Racing Commission.

"Tear down Pimlico and rebuild it? Great - if that's what's going to happen," said Charlsie Cantey, the national television commentator from Maryland who delivered the keynote address at yesterday's National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame induction. "I'd have the same question as everybody else: When? ... Show me."

Nick Zito, the Preakness-winning trainer based in New York, said he'd welcome a new Pimlico Race Course.

"I'd love for him to do it," Zito said. "But tell him to do it quicker than he's building the training center in Florida."

Magna is building a training center near Gulfstream Park, which it owns, to alleviate a stall shortage in South Florida. Construction has progressed slower than anticipated.

Wayne Lukas, the Hall of Fame trainer who has won the Preakness five times, has criticized conditions at Pimlico. He has said he waits until a few days before the Preakness to bring his horses to spare his workers staying in rooms on Pimlico's backstretch.

"We've had some people in racing criticize that facility," Lukas said. "I think rebuilding it is a great idea, as long as it's done so that tradition is preserved. You don't want to lose what we've built for 100 years."

Louis J. Ulman, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, said he would be insistent on getting assurances from Stronach that Pimlico would be rebuilt once it was torn down.

"I think it's feasible if he has the funding to do it and can give us the guarantees that he can accomplish what he wants to accomplish," Ulman said of the project. "I think it is workable. I think a brand-new facility in place at Pimlico would be a real asset to the racing industry in the state of Maryland."

Alan M. Foreman, an attorney for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, was adopting a wait-and-see approach. "I don't know what their plans are, and I don't know if they know what their plans are."

"We'll sit back and wait to hear their plans and we'll judge it as it goes," Foreman said. "I've been saying for years we need to rebuild our facilities, or build a new facility for racing if we're going to be able to compete in today's market, an entertainment market.

"If in fact this occurs, I'll be a very happy person, one who's been involved for 25 years. But pardon me for being skeptical."

Louis J. Raffetto Jr., the chief operating office of the Maryland Jockey Club, said the inconvenience of the short term would be more than rewarded by the payback of the long term.

"You don't have to build some facility that holds 40,000 on a regular basis. A lot of these places that have been built in the past years are dinosaurs. We could build a facility - and I'm not sure what Magna has in mind - that could accommodate big crowds of big days in the spring ... an open-air structure that could accommodate Preakness crowds and maybe a future Breeders' Cup.

"If it means moving the Preakness for one year, then it's well worth the effort."

Referring to Stronach, Raffetto said: "People just don't give Magna and Frank the credit they should for what he's invested in the industry. His intentions are good."

Tim Smith, head of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (its main task is marketing the sport), said: "Anything that brings new capital and plans for upgrades and modernizing the physical plant is a positive, especially given the importance of the Preakness.

"Maryland is a really important racing market. It has as much history and tradition as anywhere in the country. I think you have to wish the new ownership team well."

Bob Baffert, the California trainer who has won four Preaknesses, including the past two, hesitated when informed of Stronach's plan to raze Pimlico.

"It has so much history to it ... Old Hilltop," Baffert said.

Then he said: "I guess it really doesn't matter what he does, as long as he doesn't do anything to the track or the infield. Beyond the outer rail [of the track], he can do anything he wants."

Baffert said he wouldn't want to see the racing surface tampered with, the dimensions of the track changed, or the Preakness winner's ceremony in the infield eliminated.

"Don't touch that little house with the cupola," Baffert said. "That's tradition."

Mike Pons, past president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, was in Saratoga Springs for Cigar's induction into the Hall of Fame. Cigar was born at the Pons family's Country Life Farm near Bel Air.

"That's all you can do at Pimlico, tear it down and start over," Pons said. "Otherwise, where would you start? It'd be like picking threads on an old suit.

"This could be a real coup for the city, with Camden Yards, Ravens Stadium and a brand new Pimlico. I just hope it doesn't get put on hold like other projects at Gulfstream and Santa Anita Park [a Magna track in California]."

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