Somewhere at the Aurora, Canada, corporate headquarters where Frank Stronach sits atop his Magna International and Magna Entertainment Corp. empire, there is a warehouse filled with architectural drawings and miniature models for changes to the racetracks Magna now owns.
I had my first glimpse of those drawings and models when I interviewed Stronach at Magna's offices in December 1998, shortly after the company bought its first racetrack, Santa Anita Park. Stronach stunned me when he unveiled his plans for the Southern California track. The grandstand would be demolished and rebuilt with what Stronach referred to as a "grand hall." The hillside turf course and paddock gardens would be eliminated. Retail shops and underground parking would be added, the stable area completely rebuilt on a different section of the property, and a gated housing community would be added. None of that has occurred in the five-plus years since.
Magna has since added several prime racetrack properties and some not-so-prime operations, including Gulfstream Park in Florida, Pimlico and Laurel Park in Maryland, Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows in Northern California (the Bay Meadows purchase was essentially for the racing license, not the racetrack property), Lone Star Park in Texas, Remington Park in Oklahoma, and Thistledown in Ohio.
Stronach drew up plans for Gulfstream Park that were similar to those for Santa Anita. In fact, he once said during a public forum at Gulfstream, "I can't wait to tear this place down." Proposed drawings for Gulfstream called for an expansion of the racing surface that would necessitate the demolition of a significant section of the stable area. That project was to have gotten under way in 2002.
While there are many racing fans who didn't see the need to destroy the existing grandstands for Santa Anita and Gulfstream and replace them with "entertainment" venues, no one complained when Stronach said he planned to raze Pimlico and rebuild from the ground up. Architectural drawings for Pimlico called for the racing surface to rotate half a turn due to the relocation of the grandstand, an ambitious project to say the least. The 2003 announcement also included plans to rebuild Laurel. To date, neither project has commenced.
Recently, without reference to earlier plans, Magna announced that both Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita Park will be rebuilt as part of major development projects that will include retail shops, private homes and apartments, and possibly hotels. For the first time, Golden Gate Fields was included in the list of tracks being rebuilt. In addition, experienced development specialists have been brought in by Magna to spearhead the efforts at Santa Anita and Gulfstream.
Work already has begun at Gulfstream Park, with the wrecking ball starting to swing on the front side and in the stable area. This time around, it looks as though Stronach's architectural plans will be put to use.
The whole world appears to have been bitten by Smarty Fever, an infliction caused by the excitement and charisma from Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) winner Smarty Jones.
Win or lose on June 5 in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), the Pennsylvania homebred owned by Roy and Pat Chapman has created more of a buzz for racing than any horse in recent memory, perhaps more than any horse since Secretariat.
The big question is whether or not this excitement can somehow be bottled and used to the industry's advantage so that Smarty Jones has a long-term positive impact on the sport. So far, he's been used as a poster boy to lobby the legislature for slot machines in Pennsylvania. But has the National Thoroughbred Racing Association or anyone else figured out how to take Smarty Fever and apply it to a meaningful national advertising campaign that racing desperately needs?E-Mail Ray Paulick