`Solemn commitment'

April 20, 2004

IT'S GREAT to hear that Magna Entertainment, the Canadian firm that owns Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks, is gung-ho on Maryland in general, on Pimlico in particular, and, last but very important, on keeping the Preakness Stakes right where it's been since 1870.

"It's a solemn commitment," Frank Stronach, Magna's chairman, told Sun racing writer Tom Keyser last week. "We're not going to move the Preakness. It's been at Pimlico for generations. It will remain at Old Hilltop."

Given Maryland horse racing's storied history and the broader horse industry's fairly sizable economic role in this state, it's also good to know that Magna remains committed to revitalizing the sport here - including long-range plans to rebuild and modernize its two racing venues.

Further, it's terrific that Mr. Stronach strongly indicated he believes the key to a healthier future for Maryland racing is to do a much better job of selling the sport - not to rely on slot machine revenues.

While Magna has never directly threatened to close Pimlico or move Maryland's premier annual sports event, that possibility has lurked not so discreetly in the background of the continuing slots debate as an unstated doomsday scenario should slots be legalized but not at the tracks.

Even yesterday, a spokesman for the Maryland Jockey Club, Magna's local partner, was keeping that untoward outcome alive, by suggesting that Mr. Stronach's "solemn commitment" likely did not extend to a situation in which tracks without slots might have to compete with off-track slots.

But in a phone interview yesterday, Jim McAlpine, Magna's president and CEO, said that Mr. Stronach's commitment was absolutely not qualified or limited in any way.

The company, which paid $117 million two years ago for Laurel and Pimlico, defines its challenge as broadening racing's appeal after years of decline, Mr. McAlpine said. "We didn't make this investment in Maryland with the idea that if everything didn't go our way, we'd pull up stakes," he said.

Put simply, this is music to our ears. We've long maintained that the racing industry itself is responsible for a lot of its problems, that it ought not look to the short-term fix of slots but to developing a long-term vision of how to create a better product and market it. A Maryland legislative committee that studied slots for a year took the same position, finding that slots at tracks in West Virginia had "done little to solve the bigger problem of the dwindling base of customers that are interested in horse racing."

After the last two years' pitched legislative battles over slots, Magna officials' stated commitments to Maryland are good public relations that, down the road, could turn out to be good for horse racing and for the state. They should be kept in mind the next time someone tries to argue Maryland must legalize slots to save horse racing.

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