12/06/2001 12:00AM

Magna executive to NTRA: Spend on lobbying not ads

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TUCSON, Ariz. - The National Thoroughbred Racing Association should drop its advertising and promotional efforts in favor of lobbying efforts, Jim McAlpine, the chief executive officer of Magna Entertainment Corp., said Thursday.

McAlpine, who is also on the NTRA board, made his comments during a panel session at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing designed to present the results of several economic studies.

McAlpine, a late addition to the panel, used his time at the podium to discuss Magna's account-wagering plans for California, criticize Television Games Network and its exclusive deals with racetracks, and make the call for the NTRA to use the $25 million it spends on television time and advertising to try to free racetracks from state and federal regulation.

"The $25 million they spend is just a drop in the bucket if you look at TV advertising budgets," McAlpine said after the panel. "I'm saying the money could be better spent."

Magna's chairman, Frank Stronach, has consistently called for less regulation in racing, complaining that racing commissions exercise too much power over racing dates and other aspects of racetrack operation. Last year at this time, Stronach was threatening to pull Magna's tracks from the NTRA if the association did not increase its lobbying efforts. The NTRA later passed a resolution making deregulation one of its priorities.

McAlpine's comments on Thursday were the first by a Magna representative at the Symposium, and his presence attracted a curious crowd to the panel, including many of the 54 representatives that Magna sent to the conference. Although the Magna employees are at the Symposium in force, they have been meeting in private in a separate building at the Symposium for two days.

Several Magna employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity said one of the topics at those meetings was Magna's plans for California, where telephone wagering is expected to become legal on Jan. 1. Of Magna's eight Thoroughbred tracks, three are in California - Santa Anita Park, Golden Gate Fields, and Bay Meadows Race Course. The company has said that it will launch an Internet and telephone betting platform as soon as regulators allow it, but company officials have declined to provide any further details.

Magna has come under fire from several racing officials for refusing to sign an agreement with Television Games Network, the 24-hour broadcast channel that has exclusive contracts with many of the largest tracks in the country. Magna and TVG have talked over the past six months, but have not been able to reach an agreement. If they do not, then account holders in California will likely have to open two betting accounts in order to bet on all of the races in California.

McAlpine said that Magna had offered to trade the rights to its signals for the rights to TVG's signals. TVG has exclusive agreements with more than two dozen racetracks, including all of the tracks owned by Churchill Downs and the New York Racing Association, plus Keeneland, Turfway, and Lone Star.

"It's a simple offer," McAlpine said. "We'll exchange our content for their content on a reciprocal basis. We're not afraid to show their show and they shouldn't be afraid to show our show. We think we'd all win."

McAlpine criticized the exclusive contracts that other racetracks have signed with TVG. "Ask anyone how much they have earned in revenue from the deal," McAlpine said. "I think you'll find they aren't very significant. Look at what their handle is, and you're not talking about much in track and source-market fees."

TVG chief executive Mark Wilson was not available, and other TVG officials would not comment.

Houston gets Great State Challenge

The NTRA said on Thursday afternoon that Sam Houston Race Park has been picked to host the Great State Challenge next year on a yet-to-be determined date in December.

The Great State Challenge will be a series of six races that will be open to one representative from each of a state's breeding program. It will be loosely modeled along the Breeders' Cup.

The NTRA board approved the selection of Sam Houston at a board meeting at the Symposium. Also at the meeting, the board approved a $60 million budget for 2002, up from $54 million last year. The budget includes a $1.5 million special stimulus program for NTRA racetracks, passed in anticipation of flagging business next year at many racetracks due to the economic downturn.