Moving race is long-shot proposition

Future: Maryland law would make it extremely difficult for Magna to take the Preakness out of state, but some in the industry concede such a scenario is possible.

Preakness Stakes

May 14, 2004|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

Imagine a television commentator welcoming viewers to a broadcast of "this year's Preakness Stakes, historic second jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown, coming to you live from Santa Anita Park in sunny Southern California!"

Could such a vision of the apocalypse, Baltimore style, ever come to pass?

"Is it possible? Sure, it's possible," said Tom McDonough, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission.

Likely? No, said McDonough, placing faith in Frank Stronach, chairman of Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canadian company that owns the Preakness and Maryland's two thoroughbred tracks, Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park.

"Pimlico will always be around," Stronach told The Sun on Wednesday. "The Preakness will always be at Pimlico."

McDonough, a Towson lawyer, said, "I think Frank Stronach is a man of integrity, and I don't think he has any intention of moving the Preakness."

No major American sports event held annually in the same city has ever moved; many have shifted to new stadiums or different suburbs of the same city, but not a new city or state.

Citing that history, many racing industry participants and observers don't expect the Preakness' colts to leave town, unlike the Baltimore Colts, the NFL franchise owner Robert Irsay moved to Indianapolis 20 years ago.

But they concede a plausible scenario for the race's departure exists as Maryland racing struggles in competition with neighboring states with slot machines at their racetracks, while politicians here continue to wrangle over legalizing slots.

Magna, which owns 15 tracks, could move the race to Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park in South Florida, Lone Star Park in Texas or any of its tracks without violating Maryland state law instituted to keep the race here.

"They could do it. They have the leverage," said Alan Foreman, general counsel of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman's Association.

The state law gives Maryland the power to effectively put out of business here any entity that sells or moves the race, and also match any offer to buy the race.

But those safeguards wouldn't stop Magna if it were to move the Preakness as part of a decision to close Pimlico and sacrifice its Maryland operations.

"If they wanted to close up Pimlico and move the race, I don't see anything in the law that would prohibit them," said Bruce Spizler, an assistant state attorney general and legal counsel to the racing commission.

Magna paid $117 million for the Maryland racing franchise in 2002, so giving up here seems highly unlikely.

"But the world has seen a lot of changes that at one time seemed bizarre," McDonough said. "There's no telling what could happen three, five, seven years down the line."

The idea of Magna's closing Pimlico and moving the Preakness seems unlikely now with Stronach's "solemn commitment" to keep the race here and upgrade the track.

"I believe he is 100 percent sincere," said Maryland Jockey Club president and CEO Joe De Francis, who sold a controlling interest to Stronach.

Stronach, 71, owns horses as well as tracks; he has spent millions to buy and breed top thoroughbreds.

Although Magna has been criticized for failing to follow through on plans to upgrade some of its tracks, "Stronach is very devoted to the industry and understands the historical significance of the Preakness," Foreman said. "When he says it's not going to be moved, I take his word on that."

But what about the potential demise of Maryland racing, which could affect the Preakness? Though also still farfetched, it is sounding less bizarre as the state loses customers, gambling dollars and horses to tracks in Delaware and West Virginia, where slots are legal.

If Pennsylvania lawmakers approve a massive slots package next month, Maryland would be almost surrounded by states with slots at their tracks, with Virginia the only exception.

"My concern is not whether the Preakness stays, but whether Pimlico can actually stay in business," said Tom Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association. "In a market obviously under onslaught from everyone else, where purses have gone down and the quality of horses has gone down, how long can [Magna] continue to provide two quality tracks and a training facility [in Bowie]?"

Facility is no jewel

To those outside the state, the clearest sign of Maryland's struggles is the condition of Pimlico, which is lagging behind that of the other Triple Crown tracks. Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., the site of the Kentucky Derby, is undergoing a $121 million facelift. Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., site of the Belmont Stakes, remains one of racing's signature venues.

Pimlico looks tired by comparison, and that is affecting the reputation of the Preakness, which dates to 1873.

"The Preakness does seem like it is, while not in jeopardy, certainly straining right now. Something has to change," said Tom Meeker, chairman of Churchill Downs.

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