Stronach Reaffirms Commitment to Preakness at Pimlico

Although racing in Maryland faces an uncertain future, one thing is clear, according to Frank Stronach, head of the company that controls the Maryland Jockey Club: The Preakness will remain at Pimlico.

"It's a solemn commitment," Stronach said Friday during a telephone interview from his office in Canada. "We're not going to move the Preakness. It's been at Pimlico for generations. It will remain at Old Hilltop."

Stronach also reaffirmed the commitment of his company, Magna Entertainment Corp., to racing in Maryland and to rebuilding Pimlico and Laurel Park. However, he would not commit to a timetable, further clouding the future of an industry staggered by the defeat of slot-machine legislation for the second straight year.

Maryland racing faces a $2 million to $3 million shortage in purse money by year's end under the current racing schedule. It also faces a horse shortage when Delaware Park opens April 24 with slots-fueled purses and Monmouth Park opens May 29 with purses enhanced by Atlantic-City-casino subsidies.

Also, the battle over simulcasting between harness factions at Rosecroft Raceway and Maryland's Thoroughbred factions has erupted again. A four-year revenue-sharing agreement that held the sides together expired March 31, and now they've resumed an old battle.

"Naturally, we're disappointed," Stronach said of the slots setback. "It seems we're caught up in politics. I've always said slot machines in the long run are not the savior of racing. It'd be very helpful in the short run because we have to compete with racetracks that have slots in the surrounding area."

In August 2002, one month after agreeing to buy controlling interest in the Maryland Jockey Club, Stronach said his company would begin rebuilding Pimlico immediately after the 2003 Preakness - with or without slots. He later said Magna, which owns 14 tracks in North America, would also rebuild Laurel Park - with or without slots.

Neither Pimlico nor Laurel Park has been rebuilt, and recent plans to rebuild the barn area at Laurel have been put on hold.

Meanwhile, Magna has continued expanding its racing empire. Those involved with racing in Maryland wonder when Magna will turn its focus on the state and fulfill Stronach's lofty promise "to restore Maryland racing to its old glory days."

Magna's first order of business, Stronach said, is rebuilding the turf and dirt tracks at Laurel Park. Scheduled for this summer, that $10 million project involves dismantling a corner of the grandstand and relocating the paddock by either moving or rebuilding it.

If slot machines ever come to the tracks, Stronach said, then total reconstruction would begin immediately. If they don't come, he said, then reconstruction would be "less elaborate" and take several years. He didn't address the possibility of slots coming to Maryland but not to tracks. Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, said that's a "doomsday scenario" no one in the organization wants to address now.

Stronach was at Laurel Park Thursday testing a new betting terminal designed by Magna engineers. It's a glitzy self-service terminal that looks like a slot machine but offers betting on horse racing. He said he hopes eventually
to install some of the machines at Magna tracks.

"It's got the quick action; every few minutes you can bet a race," Stronach said. "It looks like a slot machine. It acts like a slot machine. But it's pari-mutuel racing."

With Stronach back in Canada at Magna headquarters, racing leaders in Maryland must decide how to cope with another year without revenue from slot machines. Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the only to erase the looming purse crisis is to run fewer races per day, to cut purses and/or to cut racing days. Those decisions will be made in coming weeks, he said. He said there's little left to cut from stakes, as the stakes program has already been "decimated."

Said Dale Capuano, a leading trainer: "We're getting to the point of Philadelphia Park or some place like that."

Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the MJC, said the Pimlico Special will definitely take place May 14, the day before the Preakness. He declined to say how the track will finance the $500,000. Horsemen have refused to let it come out of their purse account.

With hefty purses at Delaware Park and Monmouth Park, with Charles Town continuing to offer rich races for cheap horses and with the prospect of Laurel's stable being closed while the track surfaces are rebuilt, Maryland faces a difficult summer.

"We're going to be in a tough spot," Raffetto said. "Something got to give."

Already, the harness factions at Rosecroft Raceway and the state's Thoroughbred factions are fighting over simulcast revenues. Rosecroft has asked the Maryland Racing Commission for permission to offer betting on Thoroughbred simulcasts without dealing with the Maryland Jockey Club, as it has had to do in the past. In retaliation, the board of directors of the Thoroughbred horsemen's group voted Thursday - with support from breeders and the Maryland Jockey Club -- to withhold all Thoroughbred simulcasts from Rosecroft beginning Monday.

Situated in Prince George's County near Washington, D.C., Rosecroft will operate day and night, accepting bets on harness racing. Pimlico and Laurel Park will close at 6:15 p.m., because state law says, without a simulcasting agreement, Rosecroft can force the Thoroughbred tracks to close at night. On the books since the early 1980s, the law was designed to protect night harness racing.

The issue will be debated Tuesday when the racing commission meets for the first time since slots were defeated in Annapolis. Commissioners have set aside Wednesday for a continuation of the meeting, believing that one day probably won't be enough. That's because they will also consider the pending deal to buy Rosecroft by Mark Ricigliano, a Laurel businessman and Rosecroft veterinarian, and Greenwood Racing, owner of Philadelphia Park.