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O'Dea sees Sports Center as Son of Sports Palace


Lynda O'Dea made her reputation in sports marketing as the "Queen of the Sports Palaces" at Maryland's thoroughbred racetracks and for throwing elaborate and fun parties at the state's big horse races.

She has had waiters on roller skates and dinner for 1,000 people on a Norweigian cruise ship. And she has used Baltimore backdrops from the Dundalk Marine Terminal to the Peabody Conservatory as props for her racetrack entertaining.

But since the death of her mentor and companion, Frank De Francis, three years ago, she has kept a low profile at the track, serving mostly as a social consultant, coordinating such events as the tented village in the infield for the Preakness and Maryland Million and activities for the International Turf Festival.

She has won accolades from the likes of Virginia Kraft Payson, owner of Europe's top racehorse, St. Jovite, to Jo Condren, wife of one of the owners of Strike the Gold.

Now O'Dea has returned to the scene in a big way in the most ambitious project of her life -- the proposed $30 million Sports Center USA at the deserted Power Plant in the Inner Harbor.

For the woman who brought computer handicapping and video technology into the gambling dens of Maryland's racetracks, it's a brave, new venture.

It will mean a total divorce from her racetrack activities and the use of her skills and ingenuity in a much broader field of entertainment.

"The Sports Palaces were just an embryonic version of the Sports Center," she said. "They cost $2 million each. The Sports Center will cost $30 million. The Sports Palaces brought modern technology to horseplayers. The Sports Center will include all kinds of sports and state-of-the-art technology from all over the world.

"It's a combination sports museum and theme park. It will offer multi-sports experiences through the use of motion simulators like they have at Disneyland and the Universal Studios' 'Back to the Future' display."

But, O'Dea added, "with budget cuts in the defense industry, there is technology available now that no one ever dreamed of. In some exhibits, people will be able to feel real gravitational forces at work on their bodies. They really will feel like they are riding the luge or skiing down a mountain."

Horse racing would play a big part in the venture. "There will be video exhibits where you can call up your favorite moments in racing and trivia games where you can test your memory of racing lore," O'Dea said.

The Sports Center also would bring Maryland's racing colony into the mainstream of the state's sports community and into a broader spectrum of public awareness.

O'Dea's chief investors are Joe De Francis, president of Pimlico and Laurel race courses; Henry Rosenberg, whose racing stable includes Dash for Dotty, a starter in this year's Preakness; and ABC-TV and "Wide World of Sports." There would be a special area devoted to Jim McKay, founder of the Maryland Million.

O'Dea said the Sports Center would not be a grandiose off-track betting parlor, at least in the foreseeable future. "For one thing, we don't have room for it," O'Dea said. "We've got every inch accounted for and could even use a few more square feet. Also, it's out of sync with our marketing strategy [geared to family entertainment]."

So far, O'Dea said, she hasn't figured out how to simulate people riding in an actual horse race. "You've got to have the mud flying and the jockeys screaming at each other," she said. "But we'll work on it."

O'Dea said she plans for the Sports Center to open in 1994.

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