04/16/2004 12:00AM

Stronach: Preakness staying put

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With the Maryland racing industry facing tough questions about its future following the death of slot machine legislation Monday, the chairman of the company that owns Laurel Park and Pimlico has reiterated his commitment to revitalizing the sport in the state.

"I want to let the horse community know we're very positive on Maryland - slots or no slots," said Frank Stronach, 71, chairman of Magna Entertainment, the Canadian racing conglomerate that bought the state's leading Thoroughbred tracks for $117 million in 2002. "It's unfortunate we haven't better communicated the importance of horse racing, but I think we can get it back. Pimlico has been around a few generations. As long as there is a Magna Entertainment, Pimlico will be in Baltimore."

Stronach vowed that under no circumstances would the Preakness Stakes be moved to another track in Magna's empire as retaliation for the state's not helping racing. "No way," he said in an interview Thursday. "That's a solemn commitment. The Preakness has been on Old Hilltop for many years."

Stronach's comments came as the failure of the slots bill left Maryland racing reeling. The sport's leaders had counted on revenue generated by the machines to help racing compete with tracks in neighboring Delaware and West Virginia, which have slots and offer purse money far exceeding that offered in Maryland.

The Maryland Jockey Club, which runs the tracks for Magna, reports a $1.2 million operating deficit for the first three months of the year. The company is in the midst of its marquee spring meet, featuring the Preakness Stakes, but when it ends on June 6, the future is unclear.

Asked if he was caught off guard by the failure of the slots legislation, Stronach, said: "I was never really that involved. In the long run, slot machines are not the answer."

However, Stronach said he was in Baltimore on Thursday to test prototypes of new parimutuel machines designed by Magna that he said mimic the experience offered by slot machines. While declining to offer details, Stronach said the new machines would be installed at Laurel Park and Pimlico in July or August.

The revitalization of the sport in Maryland would be a "three-year" process, Stronach said, starting this summer with the planned installation of a new turf course at Laurel Park and a widening of the existing dirt course.

"The next thing is we've got to spruce up Pimlico," Stronach said. "We've got this great race. We've got to get the Preakness back to its glory."