MEC-owned Pimlico Race Course

MEC-owned Pimlico Race Course

Jimmy McCue

MEC: No Immediate Plan to Sell MD Tracks

MEC plans to maintain its Maryland holdings at least for now, an official said.

A Magna Entertainment Corp. executive said the company has no plans to sell either of its Maryland racetracks but indicated the results of a statewide November referendum on slot machines could play a role in any decision.

MEC owns Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Pimlico, because of the Preakness, is the revenue-driver, but Laurel races many more days per year and also could be selected as a location for slots should the referendum pass.

“We have a lot of suitors,” MEC vice president of racing Scott Borgemenke said when asked if a racetrack sale was in the works. “We have no plans right now to sell either of the facilities. Then again, I don’t know what our partners (in any future slots development) will be asking for. We don’t want to get out of Maryland racing.”

MEC purchased a majority interest the two tracks in 2002 in a transaction valued at about $117 million, and in 2007 bought out the remaining interest of the De Francis family for more than $18 million.

Borgemenke, who held a media briefing at Pimlico May 17, said MEC will campaign for the ballot question on slots even though it remains to be seen if the devices would be located at any racetrack in Maryland. The legislation has broad language, but Laurel and Ocean Downs, an Eastern Shore harness track, would qualify for slots if selected; Pimlico and Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track south of Washington, D.C., would not qualify.

“We’ve come out in support of the referendum,” Borgemenke said. “You can debate the details of the bill, but the fact is it is what it is on the ballot. We want (a racetrack with slots) to be a destination, not just a slots parlor.”

Borgemenke, who comes from a racing family and is known for his background in Ohio politics, said MEC “never had any intention” to move the Preakness out of Maryland. He also said the return this year of the grade I Pimlico Special is part of an overall plan to improve the racing product.

“Look, I think purses are an issue, and field size is a problem everywhere in the region,” Borgemenke said. “The number one determinant of handle is field size. We’d like to work to get all these purses up across the board.”

Indeed, field size is an ongoing concern in the Mid-Atlantic region given the large number of racetracks located within an hour of two of each other. New regulations on use of anabolic steroids in Delaware and Pennsylvania provided some added pressure this spring.

Atlantic City Race Course, with its six-day all-turf meet, had by far the largest field size per race at 9.92, according to statistics from The Jockey Club Information Systems. Charles Town Races & Slots and Hollywood Casino at Penn National are next at 8.39 and 8.24, respectively.

The tracks with the highest average daily purses and overall higher quality racing currently have the smallest average field size: Philadelphia Park Casino & Racetrack (7.91), Pimlico (7.43), Monmouth Park (7.04), and Delaware Park (6.10).

As for one of its California holdings—Santa Anita Park—MEC hasn’t yet made a decision on its primary racing surface, Borgemenke said. Santa Anita has a synthetic Cushion Track that was beset with problems during the most recent winter/spring meet, but some changes allowed Santa Anita to finish its meet with what track officials believe is an improved surface.

Despite a synthetic-surface mandate in California, there was talk about going back to a dirt track at Santa Anita, which this October will host the two-day Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

“We’re looking at it,” Borgemenke said. “We’ve got environmental forensics people looking at (the surface). As many problems as we had (during the last meet), we ended up with a pretty nice track.”

With time running short, it’s expected MEC will announce it plans for Santa Anita sooner rather than later. The Oak Tree Racing Association meet at Santa Anita begins in late September.