Magna, Maryland Leaders to Discuss State of the Industry

By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Four days after a record-setting Preakness Stakes, Magna Entertainment executives will meet today with House Speaker Michael Busch to discuss the state of horse racing in Maryland and attempt to persuade him to broker a compromise on slot machine legislation to aid the struggling industry.

The meeting comes a day before Busch (D-Anne Arundel) gathers with House leaders for a yearly review of committee agendas. Magna Vice Chairman Dennis Mills said he considers tomorrow a critical day for the future of horse racing in the state, but the speaker played down the likelihood slots would be a central topic of discussion when he meets with committee heads.

Magna, a Canadian-based racing conglomerate that operates Laurel Park and Pimlico, has been lobbying for a special session in Annapolis to pass slots legislation. The House and Senate each passed separate alternative gaming bills during the recently concluded legislative session, but Busch declined to negotiate and iron out differences.

"We have always found when you take the higher ground and reach out and when the cause is right, legislators will respond," said Mills, who be joined in his meeting with Busch by recently hired company vice president Paul Cellucci, the former governor of Massachusetts and ambassador to Canada. "We have blind faith in the legislators of Maryland."

Busch, however, appeared unlikely to budge. He criticized Mills for a lack of involvement during the past legislative session and questioned Magna's commitment to Maryland after the company announced last week it would build a $100 million racetrack in Romulus, Mich.

"We passed a bill last year with input from the governor. Please tell me where Dennis Mills was during this period of time," Busch said. "It's not like they didn't have the opportunity to hit this thing out of the park. If he was that concerned about his industry and the end of the industry as we know it, you would think he would be down there. How does he not show up, and he's paying four or five lobbyists $4 [million] to $5 million a year?"

The Preakness on Saturday brought a record crowd of 115,318 to Pimlico and set a total wagering record of more than $88 million for the day. Yet racing in the state struggles to be profitable the rest of the year and is losing horses and fans to Delaware and West Virginia, states with tracks boosting purses and revenue with slot machines. Magna reported a loss of $4.1 million in its first quarter this year.

For the first time since Magna purchased Pimlico in 2002, company chairman Frank Stronach did not attend the Preakness. Even though a horse he owns won the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes on Friday, Stronach remained in Austria on business.

Mills said he and Pimlico President Joe De Francis asked Stronach to stay away because he has commented in the past that Magna is not interested in slots or in taking the Preakness out of Maryland under any circumstances.

"We said, 'Frank, you will run into people that will take advantage of your commitment and passion for Maryland racing, and we are in intensive care in Maryland,' " Mills said. " 'We need you to stand down so that we can pull all the leadership together to get slots done.' "

© 2005 The Washington Post Company