01/10/2006 12:00AM

Two fellow Canadians are racing's visionaries


TUCSON, Ariz. - Driving down coastal highway A1A in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., two years ago, heading toward Gulfstream Park, I encountered a dead-stop traffic jam approaching one of the rising bridges along the waterway.

Nearing it, I saw pedestrians lined up on the seaward edge, and I thought a car had gone off the bridge into the water. Then, as I reached the crest, I looked left, and heading toward me was the most massive sight I had ever seen on water: the gargantuan Queen Mary II, making her first appearance in Florida.

I thought at the time what a huge responsibility it had to be to captain such a giant, and the thought returned this week, again involving Gulfstream Park, when a friend sent digital photos from the first turn of the mass of the new Gulfstream, front to back as well as height and length. It is an awesome ship that captain Frank Stronach now commands.

Seeing what Stronach has wrought, after tearing old Gulfstream down to the ground, brought another memory, this one ironic.

Stronach and David Willmot, the visionary leader of Woodbine Entertainment, were fellow board members at the Toronto track not too long ago. Two giants of racing, with deep backgrounds in the sport, Willmot at his family's Kinghaven Farms and Stronach at Adena Springs in Florida, they held separate and very disparate views of Woodbine's future.

Stronach left Woodbine, bought Santa Anita, and launched the track-buying spree that made him the biggest track owner in North America. He announced his intention of making his racetracks entertainment and shopping complexes, and along with the opening of Gulfstream, it was revealed this week, in a county-permit filing, that Magna apparently is moving forward toward a million-square-foot commercial mall at its Laurel Park track site in Maryland.

Willmot, meanwhile, made certain that Woodbine's racino was the finest racetrack gambling venue in the sport, an artistic triumph as well as an economic one, and he poured millions into turning Woodbine into a state-of-the-art racetrack.

What made my first view of the new Gulfstream ironic was the arrival, the same day as the photos of the rebuilt giant, of renderings for Woodbine Live!, the massive entertainment complex that David Willmot is going to build on the spacious, sprawling acreage of Woodbine, just south of Toronto International Airport.

Willmot's grand plan for the largest piece of undeveloped property in the city of Toronto is epic. It will, he promises, "be far more than a cinema dropped onto a parking lot . . . it will be the new heartbeat of Toronto."

Those who know Willmot know that he does not talk idly, or boastfully. He does what he says he will do, and there is little doubt that Woodbine Live! will rise as he predicts. The first shovel of dirt will not be turned for more than a year, as permits, environmental studies, zoning changes, and design issues still loom ahead. But it will be built, and the irony is that these two strong-willed and successful racing leaders who went their separate ways now wind up traveling parallel paths of optimism in an otherwise bleak landscape of largely unimaginative thinking.

Stronach showed up at Gulfstream last Saturday and ruminated about how nice it might be if Magna and Churchill might join forces to buy Belmont, and Aqueduct, and Saratoga and turn those tracks into a New York playground.

Then on Monday, Churchill announced a partnership with Magna and Racing UK, which owns rights to television at 31 racetracks in Great Britain, to send signals, including the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Arlington Million, and Santa Anita Handicap, to England and Ireland on a television channel to be called Racing World. Tom Meeker, seeking to end his long and illustrious career at Churchill on a high note, called the idea "a new business opportunity," and indeed it is another step into the new world of racing.