09/09/2002 11:00PM

Woodbine a model for gaming and racing


TUCSON, Ariz. - Once a voyager crosses the Peace Bridge in Buffalo and passes Fort Erie, he heads into rarified Thoroughbred air. There are no runners due north of there and the North Pole except for those racing at the Colossus of Toronto, Woodbine racetrack, and the clan gathered there last Sunday for a big picnic called the Atto Mile.

Atto is an auto insurance company that caters especially to older drivers, and its owner, John Atto, is a horse owner and avid booster of Thoroughbreds who sponsors the Mile, which has a purse of a million Canadian dollars. Even at current exchange rates, that means a $630,000 pot on a Sunday afternoon, a party big enough to draw Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens, Frankie Dettori, Corey Nakatani, Richard Migliore, Robby Albarado, Eibar Coa, and a few more of the best riders in racing.

Day won the turf mile riding the Nureyev colt Good Journey, catching the only filly in the 13-horse field, 55-1 Chopinina, in deep stretch. Day also rode Lismore Knight to victory in the $291,250 Summer Stakes earlier in the day, making the trip north worthwhile.

Woodbine is second only to Arlington Park as an architectural Taj Mahal of North American racing, but it has a leg up on Dick Duchossois's beautiful personal monument.

It has a casino.

Not only a casino, but the fanciest, most tasteful, and busiest in horse racing. Its ambiance, and that of the entire track, make Woodbine an ornate "racino," the kind Marje Everett had planned for Hollywood Park, but missed by eight furlongs or so.

Woodbine is David Willmot country. He runs it, and his clairvoyance for racing's future marks every inch of the property. He is the most articulate spokesman for racing in the world today, and its best ad lib speaker by an Atto mile. He was named the racing's Entrepreneur of the Year by the University of Louisville's Equine Industry Program two years ago, and students there were understandably enraptured by his off-the-cuff eloquence. Last spring, he and John Long of Churchill Downs engaged in an armchair conversation at a racing congress in Las Vegas, and listening to those two giants talk was like listening to a symphony.

Woodbine also used to be Frank Stronach country. The track has one of the most impressive VIP rooms on the continent - the Woodbine Club, huge and paneled and elegant - but it was not big enough for both Willmot and Stronach. Stronach's departure from the Woodbine board marked the launching point of Magna Entertainment, and there are those in racing who liken that development to the man who, upset that he couldn't get a table from the maitre d' in a fancy restaurant, bought the joint and fired the guy.

Stronach didn't fire anyone at Woodbine - in fact, he hired some of its stars away - but he recently bought Flamboro Downs, a harness track 42 miles down the road. Stronach repeatedly says slots are not the answer for racing and that he is a track operator and not a casino operator, but he now has his own fancy playpen, complete with slots, in the shadow of Woodbine.

Willmot is expanding the Woodbine empire to the Pacific with his acquisition of Hastings Park in Vancouver, and, of course, Stronach keeps buying tracks like Imelda Marcos bought shoes.

Stronach's most recent incursion is in Michigan, where he charmed the state's racing commissioner, Annette Bacola, with plans for a supertrack near Detroit's metropolitan airport. Commissioner Bacola must approve the idea, but from her glowing, bubbling description of the plans as "a model for American racetracks" it seems that approval is the best odds-on bet of the year.

Stronach also showed up at the editorial offices of the Washington Post last week and told the editors that if they doubt he will do what he says he is going to do at Pimlico - which some in racing do doubt indeed - they should take a look at what happened to the machine shop he started 40 years or so ago in Toronto, when he arrived as a 20-year-old immigrant from Austria. He now has 70,000 people working for Magna, worldwide.

I don't know what Mr. Stronach will wind up doing, but I do know that as long as he and David Willmot are at work in Ontario, the road north from the Peace Bridge will enable you to see what racing and gaming can be like melded in the best of circumstances. And the scene will be lively.