TV Show: Some Squawking, But Great Exposure for Sport

Thoroughbred racing got plenty of television exposure Aug. 22 during the three-hour "Squawk Box" program on cable network CNBC--and so did two racing executives who have been at odds in recent years.

The program featured interviews with industry participants, including Magna Entertainment Corp. chairman Frank Stronach and New York Racing Association chairman Barry Schwartz. It wasn't exactly a point-counterpoint, but they both discussed NYRA, which has been on the hot seat with state and federal investigators.

MEC a few years ago was selected to purchase New York City Off-Track Betting Corp., but the sale never went through. MEC also expressed an interest in taking over the franchise of NYRA, which operates Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga.

When asked by CNBC if his company is still interested in NYRA, Stronach danced around the answer. He said MEC is interested in expanding its business and could offer "a substantial amount of money" to lease or purchase the New York racetracks.

Stronach also said the three tracks "belong to the state." In a subsequent interview, Schwartz told CNBC that's not the case. He said the state may own the franchise, but NYRA owns the three tracks and pays $18 million a year in property taxes.

"They'd have to build their own racetrack to run races here," Schwartz said in a live interview from Saratoga, where Squawk Box was based for the morning.

Schwartz, an owner, breeder, and avid racing fan, also took the opportunity to tout Saratoga as the premier meet in the country, and NYRA as the leading racetrack operator.

"The most top-class racing is held here every year," said Schwartz, whose homebred 3-year-old colt Traffic Chief just won the restricted New York Derby at Finger Lakes and the restricted Albany Stakes at Saratoga. "NYRA has the largest purse account of any track in North America. We paid $116 million in purses last year."

Stronach said MEC, the leading racetrack owner in North America in terms of number of holdings, has invested $800 million and must invest another $500 million to $600 million to get its facilities up to date. The facilities said to be in line for major improvements are Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course in Maryland.

When asked by CNBC why MEC isn't performing as well as Magna International, Stronach's auto parts company, the chairman said: "It's a young company, only two or three years old. We buy a lot of racetracks, and they're antiquated. You can't change that overnight. It's like an old factory. It takes two or three years to fix it up."

On the topic of racing, Stronach, also a prominent owner and breeder, said there is no conflict of interest when one of his horses races at one of his tracks.

"I don't think there is a conflict," Stronach said. "Actually, I think I'm slightly handicapped by it...Usually my horses are disqualified for the slightest infraction."

The Squawk Box program also featured NetJets president Richard Santulli, a prominent horse owner; trainer Nick Zito; and handicapper Andy Beyer. It came about through The Greatest Game, an owner-recruitment program that made a sponsorship buy on CNBC.

Dan Metzger, president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, which administers The Greatest Game, said Gerold Klauer, one of the first people to participate in a new owners' program at Keeneland, had some contacts at CNBC and facilitated the program. Klauer, a businessman, has appeared as a guest host on Squawk Box.

"It has been a positive opportunity for Thoroughbred racing," Metzger said. "For what we put into it, we got three hours of television. (NYRA senior vice president) Bill Nader called me and said it's a home run. It's a positive spin for all of racing."