Dennis Mills, shown in 2005, is chief of MI Developments, which… (Baltimore Sun file photo )
The new owners of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park envision another golden age of horse racing in Maryland - believing they can polish the Preakness and transform the tracks into profitable enterprises with bigger betting pots and new retail and entertainment venues on the land surrounding the fading operations.
Canadian-based MI Developments is buying the tracks from bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corp., subject to the approval of a bankruptcy judge. MID is also Magna's parent company.
In an extensive interview with The Baltimore Sun, MID chief executive Dennis Mills talked about his company's vision for changing the business model that led Maryland's racing industry to lose millions of dollars and attendance to plummet.
Mills also is hoping for a second chance at slot machines for Laurel Park after plans for a casino at Arundel Mills mall have run into opposition. And his company sees the potential to get into other gambling ventures in the future as the state contemplates expanding gambling to include such options as table games, as neighboring states have done.
Skeptics say his company is little more than an extension of Magna, which operated the tracks as they neared financial ruin, and question whether MID would do any better. Magna called off an auction of the tracks this week after brokering a deal to sell them to MID. Racing magnate Frank Stronach serves as chairman of both MID and Magna.
Mills also addressed the detractors.
Magna and MID "are two totally different and totally separate public companies," he said. "Yes, we do have the same chairman, but it is a different philosophical approach."
State leaders have said they want to preserve the racing industry in Maryland, where it has a long history, and that they are prepared to work with MID.
"We have nowhere to go but up, quite frankly," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said. "Magna is in financial trouble throughout the world."
Del. Sandy I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Pimlico, described the MID deal as the "scenario that we got." He said the track facilities that sit empty when there aren't big races could be used for other purposes. He wants to make sure MID includes residents and area businesses in discussions about development around the tracks.
"The community wants to work with the old/new owner in making the track a better neighbor," Rosenberg said.
A number of bidders had been seeking to buy the Maryland racetracks, including Baltimore developer Cordish Cos. and national casino operator Penn National Gaming Inc.
Mills said MID was prepared to bid for the tracks at the auction, which had been scheduled today, but hammered out an agreement with Magna early Monday morning. Brian Rosen, an attorney for Magna, said that Magna didn't have a viable stalking-horse - or lead - bidder, so it decided to partner with MID.
The tracks became even more attractive as residents and others objected to a casino being built by Cordish at Arundel Mills and appear to have gained enough signatures to put the issue to referendum in November, Mills said. If voters reject slots at the mall, that could open the door for slots at Laurel Park.
"If that's the decision of the referendum, then we would feel we have a legitimate chance to be considered as a slots site at Laurel Park," Mills said.
"We hope that we can develop a relationship with the state leadership, the gaming leadership and the local business leadership so that we would eventually have a gaming experience at one of the racetracks," he said. "But that's not our call. We're certainly going to try to make ourselves worthy to be considered for the possibility."
Magna missed its first chance for slots at Laurel Park by not paying the required fees for a state license.
"The governor and I and everyone involved had hoped that slots would be at the racetracks," Miller said. "We didn't want them at the shopping center. ... The people at the racetracks didn't put the money up. It would be nice if we had gambling at the racetracks to preserve racing, to preserve the Preakness. But we'll have to see how that plays out."
Mills said MID also is interested in the land around the tracks, which he described as "some of the best real estate in America." Under the deal that still must be approved by the bankruptcy judge in Magna's case, MID acquired 565 acres around Laurel, Pimlico and the Bowie Training Center.
Mills said the company would look to possibly close the training center and develop the land. It would build up the perimeter around the other two tracks. He envisions projects including restaurants, boutiques and even residences, and is looking to local developers to help devise a plan.
"We definitely have intentions to do something with Bowie," Mills said. "There has to be rationalization. There is no man on the planet that would say all three facilities should stay open in their current state."