12/14/2001 12:00AM

Stronach buys land in Ocala; everyone wonders why

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OCALA, Fla. - Frank Stronach, the chairman of Magna Corporation, has contracted to buy more than 400 acres of real estate in Ocala horse country, and the question that no one seems willing to answer yet is: Why?

The real estate, which was contracted through Steve Gray, an Ocala attorney, is on the east side of Interstate 75, north of and partly in Ocala's city limits. Stronach owns Adena Springs South, a 3,200-acre Thoroughbred nursery and training facility north of Ocala, about 20 miles from the contracted site.

It is not clear whether Stronach is acting on his own or in the interest of Magna Entertainment, the corporation that owns or operates eight Thoroughbred racetracks including Gulfstream Park near Miami. Phone calls to Gray seeking comment have not been returned. There are "no comments" from Magna officials at Gulfstream. Adena Springs farm manager Mark Roberts has issued statements saying that Stronach will be in Ocala in January and will answer questions then.

In the meantime, there has been plenty of speculation, and the most intriguing suggestion is that a new racetrack could be built, possibly for a Quarter Horse meet.

According to several lobbyists, the only parimutuel permit available without a legislative act is for Quarter Horse racing. The Florida statute that covers parimutuels does not sanction a Quarter Horse meet within 50 miles of an operating Thoroughbred track, and the statute forbids operating a mixed meet of Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds within 125 miles of an operating Thoroughbred track. Tampa Bay Downs is within the 125-mile limit from the contracted site, which means no mixed meet would be possible in the Ocala area from mid-December until early May under the current Tampa Bay Downs schedule.

There is one interesting quirk under the statute that allows a Quarter Horse permit holder to function as an intertrack wagering site so long as it is not within 50 miles of a greyhound track. There is no dog track in the Ocala market

Marion County is the fifth largest of 67 counties in Florida in terms of land area but is way down the rankings in population, with 50,000 people in the greater Ocala area and another 215,000 in the rest of the county.

Legislature to consider VLT's

The Florida legislature, which meets in January, will have at least two parimutuel matters on the agenda. The first will be an effort to legalize video lottery terminals, or slots, in all parimutuel facilities. The second, an issue strongly supported by Stronach, will be an effort to completely deregulate the parimutuel industry. Said Doug Donn, track chairman at Gulfstream: "We want to clarify the language of the various statutes, which all too often have so many layers of meaning built up over the years that no one really knows what they mean."

Racing dates have already been deregulated, effective Jan. 1, but deregulation could also play a role in the area of simulcasting signals. Existing statutes require an operating track to make all its signals available to whatever Florida satellite parimutuel facility wants them. How this would play in a deregulated era is uncertain.

Last January, Gulfstream Park president Scott Savin stated that VLT's were not on Magna's agenda but that telephone betting was. Last week, when Donn was asked the same question, he said: "We have no hard position on this right now. There will be a lot of things on the table, and this undoubtedly will be one of them."