Updated on 09/16/2011 7:48AM

Can Magna turn cynicism to hope?


BALTIMORE - As Maryland racing has declined during the last decade - with its facilities deteriorating, its ontrack business eroding, and its purses falling behind those in nearby states - people who love the sport have hoped for some dramatic change that might rescue it. On Monday, those hopes became a reality with the announcement that the Magna Entertainment Corpor-ation will purchase a majority interest in Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.

Joe De Francis, who will remain president of the tracks, declared that the transaction comes on "a great and historic day for Maryland racing." Magna, he said, has a vision for the sport's future and the financial resources to make improvements that the Maryland Jockey Club never could have afforded. Jim McAlpine, Magna's chief executive officer, predicted that Laurel and Pimlico will benefit as their new parent company brings their product into the home through televised races and betting via telephone and the Internet.

Yet Marylanders who have grown cynical over the years may reasonably wonder whether Magna's presence will change much of anything. After all, De Francis's critics blame him for many of the problems in the sport - and he will continue to run the tracks for at least the next five years. Moreover, Magna has not distinguished itself as a racetrack operator, earning a barrage of criticism after a dismal winter season at Gulfstream Park.

But the company and its chairman, Frank Stronach, cannot be criticized for a lack of vision. They are thinking big, seeking to develop a self-contained national racing and betting network. And they aim to redefine the very nature of the modern racetrack.

Magna has been busily acquiring tracks from coast to coast so that it can put together a substantial package of racing products for a racing television channel, Horse Racing TV, which McAlpine said would be launched by the fall. McAlpine also envisions bringing the product into sports bars that would double as offtrack betting outlets. The company already has an established telephone-betting business, Xpress Bet. De Francis said that being part of a network that includes tracks such as Gulfstream and Santa Anita "gives us opportunities that we could not exploit if we remained a small, independent company."

The Maryland tracks already do a reasonably good job of exporting their races; $424 million was bet off-track on their product last year. The main problem at Laurel and Pimlico is that the traditional live product is in such sorry shape; fewer and fewer people come to the tracks, and most of them are hard-core types who spend the day in front of television monitors watching simulcasts. A day at the races here can be a depressing experience.

Magna's grand plan is to transform racetracks and the whole experience of going to the track. Not only does the company want to build more attractive facilities, but it wants to turn them into what McAlpine calls "destination entertainment centers" that will draw customers with non-racing attractions such as concert venues, theaters, sports bars, shops, and cafes.

Such a transformation will be a tall order in Maryland. Pimlico is such a decrepit eyesore that it needs an infusion of tens of millions of dollars. Laurel - now surrounded by ugly scaffolding so that falling window panes don't hit customers on the head - needs work, too. Making substantial renovations will be so dauntingly expensive that it is by no means certain that any owner would consider it a good investment. Even De Francis conceded, "These people are not Santa Claus. They're businessmen."

The prospect of transforming Laurel and Pimlico into "destination entertainment centers," where patrons might sip cappuccinos at cafes by the paddock, seems utterly preposterous. The only entertainment that might lure non-horseplayers to Laurel and Pimlico is slot machines, and if Maryland legalizes the devices Magna will hit a jackpot. But McAlpine insisted that this was not a principal reason for the purchase, for Magna's focus is the sport. "At all levels," he said, "our company is made up of people who are passionate about horse racing."

Even if Magna does spend millions on physical improvements, such changes will not necessarily address the central problems of racing in the state. Many fans have been alienated by poor customer service or a vague sense that the tracks' management doesn't care about their interests. Maryland bettors have shunned Maryland races because the quality of the day-to-day product has often been poor. Magna doesn't have a magic solution for these problems; in its second season of operating Gulfstream, the quality of the track's racing declined sharply and long-time fans were exasperated.

The modern racing business faces so many complex challenges that there are no panaceas for its problems. But people in Maryland racing must hope - for they have no other choice - that the partnership of Magna and Joe De Francis will hold the promise of a fresh start.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post