03/09/2009 11:00PM

Good and not-so in the headlines


TUCSON, Ariz. - Almost all that can be said about the Magna Entertainment Corp. bankruptcy already has been said.

But not quite.

Media coverage of the event shows clearly that Frank Stronach did not fail entirely, as the stories implied. In fact, they were a testimonial that he accomplished what he said he would, although certainly not with the result he hoped for.

He set out to span the time zones, here and elsewhere, and build a chain that would give him racetracks in all of them, so there could be continuity of racing coast to coast, and beyond, at Stronach-controlled tracks.

He did that here, and the press coverage attested to it.

In Baltimore the Sun, and in Washington the Post covered the story from the Pimlico and Laurel angle.

In Miami, the Herald covered it from the viewpoint of Gulfstream Park.

In Cleveland, the Plain Dealer dealt with Thistledown.

In Dallas, the News carried the story as it related to Lone Star Park.

In Los Angeles, Santa Anita was featured in the Times.

In San Francisco, the Chronicle told the story as it related to Golden Gate.

And in New York, the Times devoted the space that a major racing story deserved.

It is doubtful if any of that wide geographic coverage soothed Mr. Stronach's savage breast. He is accustomed to success, not defeat, and headlines like the Financial Post's had to hurt deeply. It read, "Stronach's horse racing dream dies."

There was not too much written last week about shareholders in MI Development, Magna Entertainment's parent. They have registered vigorous protests for several years about propping up MEC, both companies firmly controlled by Stronach. They could not have been overjoyed that MI Development, the real estate arm of Magna International, with existing loans of $372 million to Magna Entertainment on the books, is loaning it another $62.5 million to keep it operating during its restructuring. All of their attempts to stop the right-pocket-to-left-pocket transfer of monies have been frustrated by Mr. Stronach from his carefully constructed perch of power.

Determining how much of his racing empire will survive the granting of bankruptcy protection is problematic. Stronach has very deep personal pockets from which to dip, but may be far less enthusiastic to do so than he was to raid the MI Development cookie jar. He has resorted to bankruptcy to stop the bleeding, and while the dream may have died, as the headlines proclaimed, the patient still loves racing, and happily he and it are not dead yet.

There were other headlines last week, one of them from Churchill Downs laced with ambition and polished with public relations. It was a program with more than 20 bullet points, the whole called "Safety from Start to Finish." All were admirable, some more significant than others, and a few very ambitious indeed.

Among the latter, the "supertesting" of all winning horses for more than 100 performance-enhancing drugs.

Others deserving major attention include the freezing and storage of equine blood and urine samples for future retrospective testing as technology advances; the prohibition of milkshaking, an admission that harness racing has been right all along on that score; the use of low-impact whips; $1 million in catastrophic injury insurance for jockeys; and mandatory, independent, and complete necropsy of any horse who dies of an injury sustained while racing or training at Churchill Downs.

That last provision would be far more meaningful it if were expanded to include any horse who dies while at Churchill, period, to see as far as possible if it died of natural causes or chemically induced ones.

A proposal on limiting field size is interesting. It says there would be "limits on the number of horses allowed to compete in certain races," but not on the Kentucky Derby, which still can have 20-horse fields.

If this move is for safety, the exception for the Derby is unfortunate. If it is not for safety, it can be counterproductive. Big fields are commonplace in Great Britain and in Scandinavia and continental Europe, and they lead to bigger and better wagering pools. If in fact they are found safe - and Churchill apparently believes they are, at least for its biggest day and most important race - they should be encouraged in every way possible.

All of the proposals have some merit, and a number already are in use, at Churchill or elsewhere. The new program was led by Jim Gates, Churchill Downs's track general manager, and will cost more than $1 million to implement. Plans call for its ultimate expansion to other Churchill tracks. Gates says the company is "passionate about this commitment."

Passion, fiery emotion that it is, has a way of frequently flaming out.

Let's hope this one burns brightly and steadily.