Magna Entertainment collapse may threaten Preakness

Mar 10, 2009 4:05 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

Stronach miscue puts race at risk

The house of cards that came crashing down on Magna Entertainment and its coast-to-coast network of major racetracks monopolized the headlines over the weekend, and deservedly so.

Although Magna emphasized that its bankruptcy would not affect its track operations from Santa Anita in the west to Gulfstream Park in Florida, it will have a profound effect long term on horseracing in America. Those two anchor tracks are for sale, and the fate of others like Lone Star Park in Dallas and Thistledown in Cleveland and, perhaps most important, Laurel and Pimlico in Maryland, are uncertain.

It was the mistake in Maryland that started the avalanche.

Magna gambled on slots to save it there, and lost. The lawyers and presumably Frank Stronach agonized until the last minute as to whether to put up the $28.5 million needed to accompany its application for slots at Laurel.

Short of money to start with, and worried that they might not get the millions back if they did not win the gamble, they decided not to make the payment. They miscalculated. The seven-man commission appointed by the governor to make the slots awards unanimously voted not to consider Magna’s application without the money, and awarded the Baltimore-Washington corridor license – a sure winner – to a partnership headed by the Cordish corporation, the giant construction company based in Baltimore, which did come up with the dough.

Without slots, Laurel and Pimlico may be doomed, and although Magna is claiming the award was unconstitutional, it ran out of time as well as money. What happens next with Maryland racing’s pride and joy, the Preakness, is problematic. Stronach, a racing man, understands its tradition and significance, but whether he can afford to save it, or chooses to, remains to be seen.

While the Magna collapse monopolized the news, it was not the only important horseracing story last week.

Churchill Downs had its own news, and while it beat the Magna mishap by a day, its full impact was quickly swallowed up by the bankruptcy.

Churchill announced a 22-point program which it calls "Safety from Start to Finish." It is hugely ambitious, and will be hugely expensive, and it combines admirable but very ambitious goals with a large dose of public relations.

For openers, it proposes testing every winner with ‘supertesting’ for more than 100 drugs.

It includes freezing and storing blood and urine samples from winners and perhaps others for more sophisticated testing in the future.

It will cover jockeys with $1 million worth of insurance covering catastrophic injuries.

It will limit starters in "certain fields" that race at Churchill, but not in the Kentucky Derby, where 20 still can go postward. It covers this curious bending of rules by declaring that only one equine disaster has occurred in all of the years of the Derby, although only a relative few of the preceding 134 have had 20-horse fields.

It will require necropsies on horses that die in racing or training accidents at Churchill, but not on those that die of natural causes, so possible chemically induced fatalities will go undetected.

There are other beneficial aspects to the effort, including safer inner rails, low impact whips, thickly padded stalls in the starting gate, improved equine ambulances and closer pre-race inspection of starters.

The worthy program will be implemented at Churchill Downs for this year’s Derby, but hopefully will be expanded to Churchill’s Arlington Park and Calder operations in the future.

Churchill says the effort will cost more than a million. If all of the goals are covered, it will be well worth it.

In New Hampshire, where the state’s tracks are desperately seeking slots, the House said no about as emphatically as it could. It considered two slots bills, rejecting the first by a thunderous 334-35. The second fared slightly better, losing 295-72.

That leaves the Senate, and despite a smattering of support there the House vote seems to have pretty well doomed the idea. Rockingham Park’s president and GM, Ed Callahan, has stated publicly that the track cannot survive without slots. Millenium Gaming has an option to buy the track, and its co-owner Bill Wortman was in New Hampshire trying to drum up legislative support. The resounding House defeat may extinguish the last flicker of hope for the historic Rock, with more than 100 years of racing history behind it.