Maryland Commission Angered By Magna's Inaction

Angry members of the Maryland Racing Commission on April 2 accused Magna Entertainment Corp., the new majority owners of Pimlico and Laurel Park, of ignoring its agreement with the commission to improve the tracks' stable areas. One commissioner even termed as "propaganda" Magna's plans for rebuilding the tracks if slots machines were authorized at the tracks.

The commissioners' ire was prompted by Magna's refusal to detail its plan for backstretch improvements pending a legislative decision on slots -- a decision that came later in the day after the commission meeting had adjourned. A House committee rejected the governor's slots proposal, and supporters conceded failure, saying it was unlikely a measure could be revived this year.

The rancorous racing commission meeting took place at the Cambridge Turf Club, the state's newest off-track betting facility, on the Eastern Shore. Built by Bill Rickman Jr., owner of Ocean Downs and Delaware Park, the OTB will open sometime before May 3, the date of the Kentucky Derby, Rickman said.

He opened the doors early to racing commissioners for their monthly meeting. They complimented its elegant d├ęcor and said they wished the state had four more just like it. They were not, however, as generous with Edward C. Hannah, Magna's executive vice president and general counsel.

Commissioners wanted to know from Hannah how Magna planned on fulfilling its commitment to spend $15 million over 18 months to improve the stable areas at Pimlico, Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center. The commission had insisted on the commitment in November as a condition of approving Magna's deal to buy a controlling interest in the Maryland Jockey Club. The agreement says the first $5 million of that $15 million must be spent by Aug. 31.

Magna plans on meeting the deadline, Hannah said, but wanted to wait on the General Assembly's decision on slot machines before devising a spending plan for the $5 million. When Hannah offered to summarize Magna's slots-dependent plans as he had recently to the Senate Budget Committee in Annapolis, commissioners cut him off.

Commissioner John Franzone, an outspoken critic of track management, called the plans "the propaganda of what you tell the legislature."

Hannah replied: "I respectfully disagree with your characterization of it as propaganda."

Later, after learning that the slots bill was apparently dead for this year, Lou Ulman, chairman of the racing commission, said "that was our whole point. That's what we wanted to hear from Magna, what they were going to do if slots weren't legalized."

Ulman said the commission is "so frustrated [with track management's inaction] that we didn't want to look at more pretty pictures of what Pimlico is going to look like."

He said he hopes Magna will now embark upon a plan for backstretch upgrades that improve conditions for horsemen and meets the conditions of Magna's agreement with the racing commission.

At the meeting, skeptical commissioners, used to the Maryland Jockey Club and its history of failed promises, lashed into Hannah. Commissioner Ellen Moyer said Magna had "totally ignored" its agreement with the commission.

"We have always been fully aware of our $5 million commitment," Hannah said. "We're going to honor our agreement."

Deciding how to spend the money was complicated by the legislature's debate on slots, he said. For instance, he said, Magna wouldn't want to spend $5 million fixing up barns only to tear the barns downs and build new ones with slots proceeds.

Franzone shot back that Magna knew about the impending slots debate when it made its agreement with the racing commission.

"The horsemen continue to live in squalor back there," Franzone said. "We're not trying to slap you around."

"We should slap him around," said Paige Davis, a commissioner usually mild-mannered at meetings.

Finally, commissioners agreed to let Hannah off the hook--for now. They said he could wait until the commission's May 7 meeting to present Magna's plan for $5 million in backstretch improvements.