Updated on 09/16/2011 8:25AM

History in the making - one way or another


BALTIMORE - The 101,138 spectators at Pimlico Race Course Saturday witnessed a race that could prove to be historic in different ways.

The Preakness, won by War Emblem with one of the most impressive performances in years, may well have launched a winner of the Triple Crown for the first time since 1978. Even though the Belmont Stakes has foiled many horses before him, War Emblem was so dominant that he has an excellent chance to capture the sport's greatest prize.

This Preakness also may have the distinction of being the last operated by Marylanders, before the state's tracks and its most famous race become the property of an international corporation. Many racing insiders who were at Pimlico Saturday are convinced that Magna Entertainment Corp. is about to buy Pimlico and Laurel Park from Joe De Francis and his partners - or at least acquire a majority interest. The merits of such a transaction are being hotly debated.

There should be no debate about the merits of War Emblem's performance. Horses most often win Triple Crown races when they benefit from good racing luck, and sometimes they deliver dominating performances under honest conditions. But rarely do they prevail after facing and surmounting adversity.

A racehorse can encounter few challenges tougher than getting involved in a head-and-head duel with a fast rival, as War Emblem did when he chased the California speedster Menacing Dennis in the early stages of the Preakness. Anyone who reviews the charts of Triple Crown races will appreciate how difficult it is for a horse to win this way. Seattle Slew did so after a grueling duel with Cormorant in the 1977 Preakness. Secretariat prevailed after his epic confrontation with Sham in the 1973 Belmont. The list of successful speed horses is as short as it is distinguished.

Perhaps some people are still dubious about War Emblem because his record was so undistinguished before the Triple Crown series. But he obviously has become a new horse - particularly since Bob Baffert took over his management. In the Derby, War Emblem, who can do it all, ran a powerful final quarter, earning a fast final time and speed figure. In the Preakness, he displayed speed, tractability, and guts - just about every virtue one could ask for in a racehorse.

Lovers of the sport would rather dwell on the achievements of a superior athlete than to ruminate upon industry politics and business deals, but Magna's looming presence in Maryland is an unavoidable issue. Many people are saying that this is a done deal. While there is no concrete evidence that anything has been made final, negotiations are in progress and both sides want to do a deal.

De Francis earlier held talks with Churchill Downs Inc., Magna's corporate arch rival, and negotiations broke down over the issue of De Francis himself. De Francis wants a buyer to infuse tens of millions of dollars into his operation while leaving him an owner and executive of the track. (We all can dream, can't we?) Churchill wanted no part of such an arrangement, but Magna may be willing to let De Francis keep minority ownership and an active management role.

The decisions of Frank Stronach, Magna's chairman, often seem driven as much by ego as business sense, and he surely wants the prestige of owning one of the three Triple Crown tracks. On a more mundane level, Stronach needs races to show on his Racetrack Television Network, and Maryland would give him an additional year-round product.

Visitors to the Preakness who surveyed the shabby facilities at Pimlico might assume that a formidable corporate owner would be a boon to Maryland. While the Maryland Jockey Club doesn't have the money for major capital improvements, the Canadian-based Magna Entertainment is a big business with an $800 million market capitalization and the resources to undertake projects that De Francis could only dream of.

Yet Magna's record with such acquisitions as Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park offers scant grounds for optimism that it will usher in a bright new era for Maryland racing. The company is notorious for announcing grand plans for rebuilding - and then not following through. It remains committed to Stronach's vision that racetracks should be "entertainment centers" rather than mere racetracks, despite a lack of evidence that the concept is viable. Magna has such a big and overbearing corporate bureaucracy that local managers are deprived of authority, but outsiders can't be sure who is accountable for anything. Magna transformed Gulfstream from one of America's most successful racetracks into an industry laughingstock, yet even its critics weren't certain whom to blame.

So the prospect that Magna will operate Pimlico in the future is not necessarily a reason for optimism. The only consolation is that neither Magna nor any other owner can mess up the product when the sport gives us a race as exciting as Saturday's Preakness and a competitor as admirable as War Emblem.

(c) 2002 The Washington Post