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Getting racing back on track?

The Baltimore Sun

Halsey Minor, a technology entrepreneur who grew up in Virginia horse country near Charlottesville, said he believes the horse racing industry has been its own worst enemy and he has an idea about how to fix it.

Minor wants nothing to do with slot machines, shopping malls, movie theaters or anything else that doesn't relate directly to the horse and its entourage - trainer, owner and jockey.

And Minor thinks horse racing should feel the same way.

"I have been appalled at the lack of fan support and the industry's failure to bring fans back into live racing," he said. "Many believe if you watch racing on the Internet or TV, that's good enough because people are betting. ... I want people to want to come to the racetrack for the racing."

The son of a Baltimore native, Minor, 43, has been looking for a way into the business without getting mired in the industry's institutions. And the multimillionaire said he believes he has found it in historic and decaying Hialeah Park in suburban Miami, a track that opened as an industry showplace in 1925 but has not held a race since May 22, 2001.

Minor wants to restore it and put his personal ideas to the test. Minor and Hialeah owner John Brunetti have agreed to meet in the next week to discuss a possible sale. Estimates for restoring the track range from $25 million to $30 million, and just how much Minor would have to pay to acquire the property is unclear. A year ago, in a formal appraisal, the property was valued at more than $40 million.

He will not have slots or shopping malls. He will have shorter intervals between races, and he will have a track design that will put people closer to the horses.

"I want to direct 100 percent of the focus on the horses, on live racing," he said. "Human beings are capable of cheering, caring and falling in love with the horse, as witnessed by the Triple Crown. But no one has given fans a chance to show they care."

Last year, Minor spent $15.3 million to buy the historic Carter's Grove Plantation outside Williamsburg with the intent of building it into a breeding farm for his future stallions. He owns two broodmares, one foul, two yearlings and three horses who are racing, including the filly Dream Rush and 3-year-old Fierce Wind, who was on the Kentucky Derby trail last spring until a bleeding incident in the Florida Derby sidelined him.

As successful as he has been in the technology industry, creating CNET, an Internet service that provides news and information about technological products, he is not widely known in horse racing.

He does count Bill Farish IV, owner of Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky., and George Bolton, a former part-owner of Preakness winner Curlin, among his best friends. The three have known each other since their days at the University of Virginia, and Farish and Bolton both said they "would never bet against Halsey" when he sets out to do something.

"He thinks big and usually achieves what he sets out to do," Bolton said. "He's incredibly forward-thinking."

Magna Entertainment Corp. owner Frank Stronach is also considered forward-thinking, but he draws much of Minor's ire. Magna operates or manages 10 tracks around the country, including Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park, Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park.

"I'm actually very angry that so much of racing has fallen into his hands," Minor said. "You can't blame one person for racing's ills, but ... Stronach is an object lesson in what shouldn't be done. He has been about anything but racing - slots, movie theaters, shopping malls."

Minor's formula for racing is the same as the one he used to build his technology business.

"I ran my company, CNET [a Nasdaq 100 technology news site] during the 2002 bubble [when many .coms dot-coms crashed]," he said. "It was a crazy, tumultuous time. But I told everybody, our primary principles are No. 1, we care about our users [clients], our advertisers and Wall Street in that order. There are people who reverse that order and they might make immediate money, but they build nothing with longevity. I recently sold CNET for $1.8 billion to CBS."

Stronach is in Austria, and his office did not respond to an interview request. But Ron Charles, president of Santa Anita Park and a member of the Executive Management Committee of Magna since 2004, takes issue with Minor's criticism.

"I think Frank Stronach has individually invested more money and time than anyone in America in trying to improve and better the horse racing industry," Charles said. "He understands the importance of technology and the need to make it convenient for the horse fan to use at home. But I know I speak for Frank when I say he also understands the only way to create a horse fan is to get him to the racetrack, and we've been working hard at doing that, too."

Even Minor's friend Farish notes that slots have helped the industry.

"This sport attracts a lot of very, very successful people," Farish said. "I would applaud his acquisition of Hialeah and its restoration. But the real key is what things he implements that are effective."

Minor said when he spoke to Brunetti, 76, he was eager to enter the discussion.

"I don't think Mr. Brunetti wants to see the icon of thoroughbred racing bulldozed," Minor said. "I don't think he wants his legacy to be bulldozers moving through the stands. And I'm patient enough and care enough to take the financial risk that I can make it work."


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