Will the Preakness Bolt from Baltimore?

It's unlikely, but new track owner Magna has Maryland worried

As the first two jewels in Thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes are inextricably linked. But the two tracks that stage the races don't even qualify as distant cousins.

Derby venue Churchill Downs in Louisville is a racing mecca, with its majestic grandstand and hallowed museum. Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, which hosts the 128th Preakness on May 17, has all the charm of a toolshed. "The first time I was there, I thought it was a factory. It's hard to think of a worse track," laments Ray Paulick, editor of The Blood-Horse magazine.

Pimlico's sagging fortunes appeared to take a turn for the better last August when hard-charging Magna Entertainment (MECA ) Corp. bought the track and promised a grand facelift. A year later, however, Maryland lawmakers and horsemen are questioning whether Magna will deliver. And there's an even scarier scenario: Given Pimlico's deplorable state, would Magna dare move the Preakness? The surprise defeat of legalized slots at state tracks in this year's session of the Maryland General Assembly only adds to the unease.

Doubts about Magna's intentions started building last summer, soon after the chairman of the Aurora (Ont.) company, Frank Stronach, said he wanted to bulldoze Pimlico and build a state-of-the-art track. But the timing for upgrades remains fuzzy. Racing officials elsewhere in the country are scratching their heads, too. Plans for an overhaul at Gulfstream Park near Miami, another Magna track, have been shelved pending further study, says Magna President Jim McAlpine. Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif., purchased in 1998, has seen improvements, but not the museum and hotel talked about by Magna officials.

Magna's first-quarter profits won't help: They slumped 32%, to $12.65 million. Last year, the company lost $14.4 million on revenues of $549 million. Still, Magna's holdings include real estate valued at $717 million, and, says McAlpine, "we have the strongest balance sheet in the business."

If its execution is spotty, Magna doesn't lack ambition. Since it was spun off from Stronach's auto-parts empire in 2000, Magna has come out of nowhere to outrace industry leaders Churchill Downs (seven tracks) and the New York Racing Assn. (three tracks). Since picking up its first property, Santa Anita, before the spin-off, Magna has spent $600 million to operate or acquire 13 more venues. Magna's vision, says McAlpine, calls for attracting a new generation of fans to the stagnant racing industry by adding attractions that will turn tracks into hot destinations.

Stronach, Magna's 70-year-old founder, is a passionate race fan for whom no idea seems too big. After leaving his native Austria in 1954, he opened a small tool-and-die shop in Toronto, quickly landing a contract to build sun-visor brackets for General Motors (GM ) Corp. Now, Magna International Inc. has more than 70,000 employees in 19 countries, making everything from car seats to exterior mirrors.

But since the Maryland legislature denied a bid supported by Magna to put slots at Pimlico, suspicions have deepened that Magna will one day ship the Preakness to a more appealing track -- say, Santa Anita. Magna owns the rights to the race, but such a move wouldn't be painless. The Maryland Racing Commission could strip Magna of remaining race dates at Pimlico and Laurel Park if the company tried to abscond with the Preakness. McAlpine insists there's no such plan: "Our goal is to run the Preakness at Pimlico."

Still, Marylanders remain worried. Scoffing at the idea of Magna stealing away with the Preakness, warns Louis J. Ulman, chairman of the racing commission, is like "being the person who said the Colts would never leave Baltimore." In other words, be careful when you bet against a long shot in this town.

By Mark Hyman in Baltimore

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