Updated on 09/17/2011 9:48AM

Stronach's bright idea? It works!


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Magna Entertainment Corporation - owner of Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita, Laurel Park, and Pimlico - has sometimes been accused of making grandiose promises when it buys a racetrack and then failing to follow through. But when Magna does undertake a project, nobody can accuse the company of resorting to halfway measures.

Before the start of the Gulfstream season, Magna opened a new training center, Palm Meadows, to stable horses who would run here. This was no ordinary training center, but the Taj Mahal of training centers, whose price tag will reach $90 million when it is completed.

Magna also inaugurated a new event at Gulfstream on Saturday, but it was not an ordinary horse race. The Sunshine Millions was a bicoastal extravaganza, with $3.6 million in purse money, 96 entrants, and an hour of national television coverage.

It consisted of eight stakes races, four at Gulfstream and four at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif., and was promoted as a Florida vs. California competition open only to horses bred in those states. The big purses drew large, competitive fields with a mix of horses from both ends of the country - many of them top-class runners. Grade 1 stakes winners Sir Bear and Booklet were among the dozen entrants entered in the richest of the races, the $1 million Ocala Breeders Sales Company Classic.

The Sunshine Millions became a reality because Magna's founder and chairman, Frank Stronach, wanted it to happen. Stronach loves racing and continually proposes new ideas for improving the sport, though many of the ideas are impractical and have to be dropped. When he bought Gulfstream, he proposed a massive renovation of the facility and envisioned racegoers sipping cappuccino at cafes outside the paddock. When he purchased the Maryland tracks, he said he wanted to rebuild Pimlico into a multipurpose entertainment center that would include a nightclub among its many attractions. But when Stronach started to talk about the Sunshine Millions, he had a practical idea, and he kept pushing for it. The event became a major focus for the Magna organization, which enlisted the breeders' and horsemen's organizations in Florida and California and found sponsors for the eight races.

Stronach sees Saturday's races as the start of something big. "We have great plans for this day," he said beforehand, "and, ultimately, we hope to grow the Sunshine Millions into a premier event."

Indeed, there is a logical way for it to expand. Magna has made a major commitment to Maryland racing with its purchase of Laurel Park and Pimlico, and Maryland's Thoroughbred breeding industry is roughly on the same level with Florida and California. Including Maryland horses in a three-way competition with the two other states would give Laurel Park and Maryland's breeding industry a much-needed boost. Because there isn't much sunshine over Laurel in January, the event might have to be renamed, but "Magna Millions" would have a nice alliterative ring.

At Gulfstream and Santa Anita, the races were surrounded by hoopla that fits into Stronach's vision of making tracks appeal to a broad audience. At Gulfstream there were marching bands, professional samba dancers, cheerleaders, a modeling competition, a concert by the rock group America and a wakeboard demonstration in the infield lake. Santa Anita had two mariachi bands, a pep band, and sky divers.

Hard-core customers surely were indifferent to most of these attractions, and few could care whether Florida or California gained the bragging rights from the interstate competition. Some skeptics might say that Magna ought to be concentrating on the everyday problems of the sport rather than devoting so much time, energy, and money to a single promotion.

But Stronach's vision for the Sunshine Millions is a smart one. Tracks can no longer generate public enthusiasm or draw big crowds merely by staging an important race. In the age of simulcasting, fans have become blase about seeing big-name horses.

The most successful horse races are the ones that are promoted as a Big Event: the Triple Crown races, the Travers at Saratoga, the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth, the Maryland Million, etc. Usually it takes many years for a race to acquire this kind of status. But the Sunshine Millions had the aura of a Big Event before it was ever run.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post