Magna's lack of action criticized

Commission: Track owner not living up to agreement

April 03, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE - Angry members of the Maryland Racing Commission yesterday accused Magna Entertainment Corp., the new majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, of ignoring its agreement with the commission to improve the tracks' stable areas.

Their ire was prompted by Magna's eluding questions on its plan pending a legislative decision on slots at the tracks - a decision that came later yesterday in Annapolis after the commission meeting had adjourned. A House committee rejected the governor's slots proposal, and supporters conceded failure, saying it is unlikely a measure could be revived this year.

The rancorous racing commission meeting took place at the Cambridge Turf Club, the state's newest off-track-betting facility, on the Eastern Shore. Built by Bill Rickman Jr., owner of Ocean Downs and Delaware Park, the OTB will open sometime before May 3, the date of the Kentucky Derby, Rickman said.

He opened the doors early to racing commissioners for their monthly meeting. They complimented its elegant dM-icor and said they wished the state had four more just like it. They were not, however, as generous with Edward C. Hannah, Magna's executive vice president and general counsel.

Commissioners wanted to know from Hannah how Magna planned on fulfilling its commitment to spend $15 million over 18 months to improve the stable areas at Pimlico, Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center.

The commission had insisted on the commitment in November as a condition of approving Magna's deal to buy a controlling interest in the Maryland Jockey Club. The agreement says the first $5 million of that $15 million must be spent by Aug. 31.

Magna plans on meeting the deadline, Hannah said, but wanted to wait on the General Assembly's decision on slot machines before devising a spending plan for the $5 million. When Hannah offered to summarize Magna's slots-dependent plans as he had recently to the Senate Budget Committee in Annapolis, commissioners cut him off. Commissioner John Franzone, an outspoken critic of track management, called the plans "the propaganda of what you tell the legislature."

Hannah replied: "I respectfully disagree with your characterization of it as propaganda."

Last night, after learning that a slots bill is apparently dead for this year, Lou Ulman, chairman of the racing commission, said "that was our whole point. That's what we wanted to hear from Magna, what they were going to do if slots weren't legalized."

He said the commission is "so frustrated [with track management's inaction] that we didn't want to look at more pretty pictures of what Pimlico is going to look like."

Ulman said he hopes Magna will now embark upon a plan for backstretch upgrades that improve conditions for horsemen and meets the conditions of Magna's agreement with the racing commission.

At the meeting, skeptical commissioners, used to the Maryland Jockey Club and its history of failed promises, lashed into Hannah. Commissioner Ellen Moyer said Magna had "totally ignored" its agreement with the commission.

"We have always been fully aware of our $5 million commitment," Hannah said.

Deciding how to spend the money was complicated by the legislature's decision on slots, he said. For instance, he said, Magna wouldn't want to spend $5 million fixing up barns only to tear the barns downs and build new ones with slots proceeds.

Franzone shot back that Magna knew about the impending slots debate when it made its agreement.

Finally, Hannah was told he could wait until the commission's May 7 meeting to present Magna's plan for $5 million in backstretch improvements.

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