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Md. betting Magna will stand behind $160 million investment

Sun Staff

The annual Preakness kickoff breakfast at yesterday featured all the traditions now familiar to the event: the introduction of a new Preakness queen, quips by the horsemen - and whispers that the race could be leaving the state.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Maryland Jockey Club President Joseph A. De Francis insist that Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canadian company that owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, has not threatened publicly or privately that it might move the Preakness Stakes, which will be run tomorrow for the 130th time.

In fact, the company promised to keep the race - with or without the legalization of slot machine gambling - when it purchased the Maryland tracks in 2002.

But doubts persist.

"I know that they're hemorrhaging money in Maryland. I know it's an uneven playing field, and I know they will make a decision at some point," Ehrlich said yesterday. "The 112,000 people leaving here Saturday need to understand [that] the stakes have been ratcheted up."

Dennis Mills, an executive vice president of Magna, said he will return to Maryland on Wednesday to meet with Michael E. Busch, who has resisted Ehrlich's efforts to legalize slots, in hopes that the House speaker and other leaders in his chamber will agree to a compromise and hold a special session of the General Assembly in the coming months.

Mills said changing market conditions have altered Magna's ability to honor its promise to keep the Preakness in Maryland regardless of slots. But he did not directly answer questions about his company's plans for the race.

"Our intention is to present to Speaker Busch on Wednesday what we would call the rationale for supporting the Maryland racing industry," Mills said. "That's where we are."

Busch, reached by phone, said the sit-down with Magna does not signal that a special session is likely.

Though he's been a skeptic on slots, Busch cobbled together a majority in the House this year for a slots bill that would have been less lucrative to the tracks. That bill died when it failed to win the support of more ardent slots proponents, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

"It's unfortunate that they didn't put this kind of effort in when [the House bill] was sitting in the Senate," Busch said of Magna.

The House Speaker said that replicating the fragile coalition of delegates that passed the slots bill last time would be difficult. "It's a controversial vote, a defining vote for some of them," Busch said.

'One big bluff'

Jeffery C. Hooke, a Chevy Chase investment banker who opposes installing slot machines at racetracks without competitive bidding, said he doubts that Magna would walk away from its investment in the state. If the company moves the Preakness, the political backlash would mean it would never get slots in the state and that it would lose its chance to recoup its $150 million to $160 million investment here, Hooke said.

"It's got to be one big bluff to get people back to the table," he said. "Sure, they have the ability to make more money by moving [the Preakness] somewhere else ... but for me, that would be like taking 10 cents when you have the possibility of making $10, so I don't expect them to do it."

His analysis of the tracks' books indicates that Magna's financial problems in Maryland aren't as dire as the company suggests. For example, he says the company reported no profits from concessions or parking at the tracks, potentially a large amount of money with 1.6 million visitors per year.

Preakness panic isn't new. As the popularity of horse racing has declined in Maryland, industry officials have warned periodically that the race is in jeopardy and legislators have taken steps to prevent it from leaving.

In the 1980s, De Francis' father, Frank J. De Francis, persuaded the General Assembly to reduce the pari-mutuel tax to help the industry. In return, the legislature enacted laws to keep the Preakness in Maryland. If the owner of the race attempts to sell it out of state, Maryland gets the chance to match the offer. If the race leaves, the tax returns to its previous level.

'An empty sanction'

But now that the Preakness is owned by a company that has many tracks, that restriction is meaningless, said Thomas F. McDonough, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission.

"They would just move the Preakness to another track they own," McDonough said. "The only thing the state could do would be to [reduce racing days] at Pimlico, which probably is really an empty sanction, given that if they do move the Preakness they will probably close Pimlico down."

If the Preakness were held at one of Magna's premier tracks in Florida or California instead of in Maryland, there would be no point in the company continuing to operate Pimlico and Laurel, De Francis said.

"We have real estate assets, especially at Laurel, that in today's market are pretty darn valuable," he said.

Hooke said zoning and other restrictions might make it difficult for Magna to sell its real estate for enough to offset its losses.

If racing is diminished at Pimlico and Laurel, Maryland's horse industry will collapse, said William K. Boniface, president of the Maryland Horse Breeder's Association.

But some observers say the risk that Magna might move the Preakness is exaggerated.

Racing Commission member John Franzone said that as a practical matter, transporting 3-year-old horses from Kentucky to a track in California or Florida and then to New York within a four-week period for the Triple Crown would be difficult.

If Magna were to move the Preakness Stakes and Maryland or any other entity decided to hold a race two weeks after the Kentucky Derby with a larger purse than the Preakness, all the best horses would go there instead, he said.

Although Ehrlich has used warnings about the possible loss of the Preakness to refocus attention on slots, he says he believes that Magna will maintain its presence in Maryland as long as it has hope of making money here.

"Support from the legislature, support from the governor, that all factors into it," Ehrlich said. "They're going to look at the long run, but they need some promise of a return on their investment. They've sunk $160 million into Maryland. They're not going to walk away that easily."

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