Yesterday's announcement that Magna Entertainment Corp., Churchill Downs Inc. and Empire Racing are joining in an effort to gain control of racing in New York state could wind up being very good news for the Preakness, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, based at Pimlico Race Course.
"There is no way to overestimate or overstate the importance of the Preakness to Maryland racing," said Joe De Francis, chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club and a member of Magna's board of directors. "We would hope to bring those three races together under one umbrella and do it better than before the Belmont went its own way."
The Triple Crown had operated as a single entity in negotiating television rights with NBC for the series for five years. In the opinion of most observers, the series built momentum for each race by being on the same network. But last season, Belmont officials broke away and joined ABC, ending the continuity.
In the new agreement, Empire Racing would cooperate with Churchill Downs and Magna Entertainment in marketing all three Triple Crown races, which De Francis said would mean bringing the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes back under the same umbrella.
And Churchill Downs and Magna Entertainment will each receive one seat on Empire Racing's 15-member board.
"By joining the Empire team, we have the opportunity to bring greater consistency to the quality and integrity of racing across the United States," Churchill Downs president and chief executive officer Robert Evans said. "We have the opportunity to better market racing to new fans throughout the year and to take U.S. racing into the global market in a powerful way."
All of this, of course, is dependent on the Empire-Magna-Churchill Downs bid being recommended and then chosen for the job.
Before yesterday's announcement, Magna and Churchill Downs, two major players in the thoroughbred industry, had entered a bid for the New York franchise, and so had Empire Racing, a Saratoga Springs consortium of horse owners and breeders.
Together, they hope to have strengthened their bid to replace the New York Racing Association as the operator of New York's lucrative racing franchise that includes the operation of Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga racetracks.
At the moment, there are 12 bids for operational rights.
Since 1955 the tracks have been operated by NYRA. Now under a new management team that has tried to correct years of mismanagement and alleged corruption, NYRA is seeking to continue operating the franchise.
Bids are due Aug. 29, and a state committee is scheduled to make its recommendations to New York Gov. George Pataki and the legislature by Sept. 29.
NYRA's franchise doesn't end until Dec. 31, 2007, and new control may not be awarded until next year.
"We're joining what we believe is a leading group of New York horsemen to help improve the situation in New York racing," De Francis said. "New York racing is a very important part of the national horse racing scene with a Triple Crown race and multiple Grade I races leading up to the Breeders' Cup. Being part of a large team that can help ensure New York racing can remain strong can be good for thoroughbred racing everywhere."