Same old for racing

Our view: New owner of Pimlico and Laurel looks a lot like the old one

March 27, 2010|By Baltimore Sun reporter

Maryland's storied thoroughbred horse racing tracks, facing a years-long decline in attendance and wagering, were in search of a buyer who could come in, refurbish the facilities and revitalize the sport. Enter a Canadian company, headed by a wealthy racing enthusiast, with plans to transform the tracks into multifaceted entertainment centers with gourmet cafes, shops, concerts and more, seeking to be for racing what Las Vegas is to table games. The company said it would welcome slots at the racetrack but had plans to bring the sport into the future with or without them by expanding betting on the Internet and by phone. Boasting deeper pockets than the old owners and a promise of innovation, the buyer sparked some optimism in the industry.

That paragraph could describe the events of this week, when MI Developments bought Pimlico and Laurel from bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corp. Or it could refer to 2002, when Magna Entertainment bought the tracks from the De Francis family. Given that both MID and Magna Entertainment are outposts of the Frank Stronach empire, it would be easy to read the promises from MID officials and think you've slipped into a time warp.

Essentially, none of what Magna promised eight years ago has come to pass. The actual track at Laurel was upgraded, and that facility got a room full of "Horse Wizard" machines that were supposed to look like slots but actually involve betting on horses. Pimlico's promised face lift never happened. Instead of revitalization, we got annual dire warnings that each Preakness could be Pimlico's last and that the industry was on the verge of collapse. MID chief executive Dennis Mills promises that his branch of the company has a different philosophy from its bankrupt corporate sibling, but his ideas sure sound familiar.

Yet Maryland's horse racing industry has greeted the sale of the tracks from Magna Entertainment to its parent company as a positive development. Industry officials were worried that a new owner might not be committed to racing and would seek to turn the tracks into strip malls and townhouses. Mr. Stronach, the thinking goes, is a huge racing fan, has bet hundreds of millions on racing and wants to see racing thrive.

But Mr. Stronach's personal passion hasn't meant that racing has succeeded here. It hasn't meant that Magna has been willing or able to shower unlimited amounts of money on Maryland's tracks. And now, with MID's plans to develop the site of a training facility in Bowie, it doesn't even mean that all of the Maryland Jockey Club's properties will remain intact. Mr. Stronach is chairman of MID, but he still has shareholders to worry about. How much appetite will they have for revitalizing a failing industry -- or betting on a long-shot chance that Laurel could one day get slots? There was risk in seeing Laurel and Pimlico go to a new owner, but given the failures of Magna's eight years running Maryland's tracks, there's plenty of risk in sticking with the old one, too.

Readers respond

I am part of Maryland's horse racing industry, have raced horses at both Laurel and Pimlico, and I do not view this as positive.


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