03/29/2002 1:00AM

Maryland cool to Magna

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An attempt by Magna Entertainment Corp. to purchase Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course from owner Joe De Francis would face strong opposition from several members of the Maryland Racing Commission.

Terry Saxon said he and at least three other commissioners would not approve a sale to Magna because of the diminished quality of racing this season at Gulfstream Park, one of 11 track properties in the United States owned by the Toronto-based company.

"We would never approve it, I can tell you that," Saxon said of a sale to Magna. "I personally would look long and hard after the experience at Gulfstream.

"Why would Maryland approve an operator that runs a premium race track into the ground?"

Lou Ulman, the racing commission's chairman, said he would review any deal with caution.

"I would need to know what their objectives are, and I think Maryland should have year-round racing," he said. "I think some of the companies might have other objectives."

James McAlpine, president of Magna, declined to comment.

In February, De Francis reportedly rejected a bid by Churchill Downs Inc. because he wanted to retain control as president and CEO of the tracks. While De Francis would not confirm any negotiations to sell the tracks, he did say he continues to seek a buyer for the shares of his minority partner, Leucadia National Corp., a New York-based holding company.

Racing in Maryland has been suffering since losing a $10 million state purse subsidy last year because of industry infighting and increased competition from nearby racetracks in Delaware and West Virginia, whose purses are fueled by income from slot machines.

This year's Pimlico Special - one of three Grade 1 stakes races run in Maryland - was canceled in part because of the loss of the subsidy.