Although racing in Maryland faces an uncertain future, the head of the company that controls the Maryland Jockey Club is talking in assuring tones about the Preakness remaining at Pimlico Race Course.
"It's a solemn commitment," Frank Stronach said yesterday during a telephone interview from his office in Canada. "We're not going to move the Preakness. It's been at Pimlico for generations. It will remain at Old Hilltop."
Stronach also reaffirmed the commitment of his company, Magna Entertainment Corp., to the rebuilding of Pimlico and Laurel Park. However, he would not commit to a timetable, further clouding the future of an industry staggered by the recent defeat of slot-machine legislation.
Maryland thoroughbred racing faces a $2 million to $3 million shortage in purse money by year's end under the current racing schedule. It also faces a horse shortage when Delaware Park opens next Saturday with slots-fueled purses and Monmouth Park in New Jersey opens May 29 with enhanced purses from Atlantic City casino subsidies.
Adding turmoil is the re-emergence of a long-running battle between standardbred and thoroughbred horsemen over simulcast revenues. It will be one of the topics at Tuesday's meeting of the racing commission -the first to be held since lawmakers defeated a slots bill Monday.
"Naturally, we're disappointed," Stronach said of the slots setback. "It seems we're caught up in politics. I've always said slot machines in the long run are not the savior of racing. It'd be very helpful in the short run because we have to compete with racetracks that have slots in the surrounding area."
In August 2002, one month after agreeing to buy controlling interest in the jockey club, Stronach said his company would begin rebuilding Pimlico immediately after the 2003 Preakness - with or without slots.
He later said Magna, which owns 14 tracks in North America, would also rebuild Laurel Park - with or without slots. Neither Pimlico nor Laurel Park has been rebuilt, and plans to rebuild the barn area at Laurel have been put on hold.
Meanwhile, Magna has continued expanding its racing empire. Two weeks ago, it opened a new track in Austria, Stronach's native country. It has proposed building new tracks in Michigan and Florida, taking over four harness tracks in Quebec and becoming part owner of New York's three major tracks: Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga.
Those involved with racing here wonder when Magna will turn its focus on this state and fulfill Stronach's lofty promise "to restore Maryland racing to its old glory days."
Asked to evaluate Magna's performance in Maryland, Tom McDonough, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, said: "I would say they've been slow, but they've been slow for a reason. They've been dancing around the slots issue, because slots would have had a substantial impact on their plans. Now that's behind us, we've got to see some tangible progress."
Magna's first order of business, Stronach said, is rebuilding the turf and dirt tracks at Laurel Park. Scheduled for this summer, that $10 million project involves dismantling a corner of the grandstand and relocating the paddock by either moving or rebuilding it.
If slot machines ever come to the tracks, Stronach said, then total reconstruction would begin immediately. If they don't, he said, then reconstruction would be "less elaborate" and take several years.
He didn't address the possibility of slots coming to Maryland but not to the tracks. Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the jockey club, said that was a "doomsday scenario" that no one in the organization wants to address now.
Stronach was at Laurel Park Thursday testing a new betting terminal designed by Magna engineers. It's a glitzy self-service terminal that looks like a slot machine but offers betting on horse racing. He said he hopes eventually to install some of the machines at Magna tracks.
"It's got the quick action; every few minutes you can bet a race," Stronach said. "It looks like a slot machine. It acts like a slot machine. But it's pari-mutuel racing."
Meanwhile, the battle over simulcasting has escalated. On Wednesday, the harness factions at Rosecroft Raceway asked the racing commission for permission to offer betting on thoroughbred simulcasts without dealing with the jockey club. They could do that because a revenue-sharing agreement on simulcasting had expired March 31.
In retaliation, the board of directors of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association voted Thursday - with support from breeders and the jockey club - to withhold all thoroughbred simulcasts from Rosecroft beginning Monday.
The issue will be debated Tuesday at the racing commission meeting at the North East Racing and Sports Club - the former Poor Jimmy's OTB - in Cecil County. The commission will also consider the pending deal to buy Rosecroft by Mark Ricigliano, a Laurel businessman, and Greenwood Racing, owner of Philadelphia Park.
Rosecroft's uncertain ownership further complicates the simulcasting dispute.