Magna Unveils Plans for Dixon Downs

After 18 months of on-and-off-again talks with city officials, Magna Entertainment Corp. unveiled its plans Wednesday night for a Thoroughbred facility in Dixon.

More than 500 people turned out for a community meeting to hear Magna officials discuss their proposal for a state-of-the-art racetrack and training facility with a major-league price tag. Though they would not disclose a budget, Magna officials earlier had estimated its cost for the project at up to $150 million.

"I was impressed. It wasn't what I expected a racetrack to look like," said Dixon Mayor Mary Ann Courville, who got her first peek at the plans along with many of her constituents. "This is just the first step in a long process."

The process, which city and Magna officials said could take up to 18 months, requires rezoning approval by the city planning commission and city council.

Magna officials said it would take another 12 to 18 months to be ready for racing.

After the local process, the Sacramento-based California Horse Racing Board also must approve the new track's license and allocate any racing dates before the new facility could open.

If it clears all those hurdles, Dixon Downs would be the first new major Thoroughbred horse-racing facility built in California in more than 50 years.

A standing-room-only crowd jammed Madden Hall on the grounds of the Dixon May Fair -- what has been the biggest thing to hit this community of 15,000 residents.

Set on 260 acres south of Interstate 80 about 19 miles west of Sacramento, Dixon Downs would create an instant landmark. Visible from the freeway, the grandstand would look like a Florentine villa -- an Italianate sports palace surrounded mostly by open space and rows of trees.

The design was the brainchild of Frank Stronach, Magna's founder, who was struck by how the nearby hillsides looked like Italy.

"That's the vision of our chairman," said Magna spokesman Ron Volkman.

Magna, the largest racetrack and parimutuel company in North America, shelved its plans a year ago for a proposed Dixon race track -- then presented only as a vague concept -- after some vocal opposition.

That opposition has dwindled to a group of about 20 to 40 residents under the banner Dixon Citizens for Quality Growth.

While the overall reaction by Wednesday's crowd was positive, some residents expressed concern about traffic problems and the main focus of the facility -- gambling.

"I'm an Orthodox Christian," said Nabil Yacoub, a Dixon resident, "and gambling goes against my faith and beliefs. I appreciate the idea of a large company coming to a small city like ours, but I would like to do it in some other way, some other business."

Compared to tracks built a half century ago, the Dixon grandstand looks diminutive -- only three stories high, with about 5,000 seats -- only 1,600 outside. That's a small fraction of the mammoth 26,000-seat grandstand at Santa Anita Park, California's most famous track and one of three that Magna owns in this state.

"I wish we had the crowds that we used to, but we don't," said Jack Liebau, who oversees Magna's California tracks. "Realistically, this is the size that we need."

But with an unusual center-bowl design, the grandstand could double as a theater-in-the-round and handle concerts and other entertainment. Group events ranging from high-school proms to charity fund-raisers could be held in multi-purpose rooms.

On the east side of the property, parallel to Pedrick Road, three concentric ovals would form the heart of Dixon Downs, including an 1 1/8-mile main track -- the largest Thoroughbred dirt track on the West Coast.

A seven-eighths-mile inner all-weather track would be used for training and inclement conditions. In between would be a one-mile turf track designed to attract grass runners from around the world.

The planned stable area could accommodate 1,300 horses and include seasonal apartments for about 250 backstretch workers. Open space could be used for soccer fields or other recreation, Magna officials said.

"We're committed to this piece of property," said Liebau. "We wouldn't have bought it if it wasn't an excellent location for a track. If it doesn't happen, we have a problem."

Dixon's attractiveness to Magna was enhanced by Gov. Gray Davis' decision on Aug. 13 to sign AB 471, which legalizes account wagering for California racetracks starting Jan. 1.