Updated on 09/17/2011 1:24PM

Magna must play its trump card


WASHINGTON - When the Maryland House's Ways and Means Committee killed a bill Monday that would have legalized slot machines at the state's racetracks, it dealt a painful blow to everyone whose livelihood is connected to the horse business. Breeders, trainers, and track employees will watch helplessly as the sport continues to decline, the victim of competition from slot-rich tracks in neighboring states. The biggest loser of all will be the Magna Entertainment Corporation, which made the costly mistake of buying Laurel and Pimlico two years ago.

Magna doesn't have to be a passive victim, however. It's a large, rich company with nationwide racing operations, and it knows how to play hardball. It has the power to deliver an appropriate response to the politicians in Annapolis: It should shut down Pimlico Race Course for good.

It should move the Preakness to one of its other racetracks - either Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif., or Lone Star Park near Dallas.

This may sound heretical, but it would make sense for the company. And it would surely allow Magna to enjoy a little spite.

President Frank Stronach had good intentions and high hopes when his company purchased the Maryland tracks in July 2002; the price tag will be $117 million when Magna buys out the remaining interests of Joe and Karin De Francis. Businesses making investments of this magnitude are usually welcomed in a state, and Magna officials were surely stunned by the rude reception they got during the slot debate. After Gov. Robert Ehrlich proposed installing slot machines in the state's tracks, opponents railed against the "greedy track owners" who would stand to benefit. Even Ehrlich eventually floated the un-Republican idea of having the state take over racing by building a track in downtown Baltimore and running the Preakness there.

Throughout the debate, few politicians displayed concern for the health of the horse business. Michael Busch, the House speaker who was largely responsible for killing slots, put it bluntly: "I think the amount of people who care [about horse racing] is next to none."

The industry failed to win its argument that the horse business is so vital to the Maryland economy that it deserves some help.

"That surprised me and disappointed me," said Paul Micucci, Magna's executive vice president, who lobbied on the slots issue. "I'm working on bills in other states, and in those other states politicians regard horse racing as important. Maryland has to decide whether this is an important industry."

Because Maryland seems to have made that decision, chances seem very remote that its racetracks will ever get slots. Even if the pro-slot forces keep fighting in future legislative sessions, and even if they succeed, there's no guarantee that tracks would get a piece of the action.

For years, the leaders of Maryland racing have dreamed that slot-machine money was going to restore Maryland racing to glory. While they dreamed, they haven't dealt with many of the sport's pressing problems. (It was, for example, almost impossible to plan renovations to Laurel and Pimlico without knowing whether a slot bonanza was coming.) But now it's time to face the truth that there isn't going to be a bonanza, and to chart the future without slot money.

The greatest financial drain on the Maryland Jockey Club has been the expense of maintaining two big racing plants and their stable areas year-round. Laurel Park is the hub of Maryland racing because of its location midway between Baltimore and Washington; Pimlico is economically useful one day a year, for the Preakness, and the rest of the time it's a money-eating white elephant.

Shutting Pimlico and putting all of the Maryland Jockey Club's resources into Laurel wouldn't have been practical for any other owner because Pimlico was needed to host the Preakness. But Magna doesn't need Pimlico or Maryland to run the Preakness because it has two others that would work quite nicely. Santa Anita would be a spectacular setting for the race (assuming the state racing board gave permission for a special meeting at a time when Hollywood Park usually operates).

Lone Star Park would be an attractive site, too, and Magna might have a special interest in relocating the race there. The company is now lobbying for slot machines in Texas, and it could negotiate from strength: Give us slots and we will give you the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

Even the Maryland pols with so little regard for the horse industry may recognize that an event of the Preakness's magnitude is valuable to a state. If it's the only bargaining chip that Magna has, the company should be prepared to use it by pointing out that if Maryland has no regard for horse racing, Texas and California do.

(c) 2004 The Washington Post