Though a Canadian company's plan to demolish Pimlico Race Course and rebuild it from the ground up is still sketchy, city and state officials are already betting the project will give Baltimore a boost and - for better or worse - help bring slot machines to the state.
"We are still at the kindergarten stage of planning," Joseph A. De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, said yesterday. "We still need to figure out the details."
De Francis offered no blueprints and few specifics to about 80 residents and state officials who attended a public meeting last night at the race course to learn more about the project proposed by Magna Entertainment Corp.
The company has agreed to buy a majority interest in Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks from the jockey club. The $117.5 million deal is subject to approval by the Maryland Racing Commission.
After yesterday's gathering, it was not clear how the ambitious plans fit the business strategy of racing magnate Frank Stronach, whose company is reining in spending and planning layoffs. Still, the plan has some powerful political support.
"It's still very preliminary," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "This is his [Stronach's] vision, his idea. Let's give him the chance to try to make it come true."
Some state leaders, including Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg of Baltimore, said they would consider public funding for the plan - something De Francis stressed has not been sought.
Skeptics wondered how Magna would pay for the project, given the company's recent financial news. Last week, the company reported second-quarter income of $1.1 million, down from $2.2 million a year ago, and its stock hit a 52-week low.
The Daily Racing Form, a paper widely read in the racing industry, ran an article yesterday about the company under the headline: "Poor quarter puts end to Magna spending spree."
The article said the company will cut back on capital spending, lay off workers and postpone a $100 million renovation of Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla.
Officials in Arcadia, Calif., have complained that Magna never made good on a promise three years ago to build an elaborate entertainment complex at Santa Anita Park. "Nothing has come to fruition," City Manager William R. Kelly said yesterday.
Magna officials could not be reached for comment yesterday, a national holiday in Canada. But De Francis said Pimlico will be the company's priority.
"The Magna company has said it has put off renovations to Gulfstream Park in Florida in part because it has moved rebuilding Pimlico higher up on its priority list," he said. "We win because as they sat down and decided their priorities, we came out number one."
Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the plans could be a boon to the
area. "It's a very large company that has a lot of resources, and it provides a unique opportunity for the Pimlico community and Baltimore City," he said. "I think they're going to want to make this a showcase."
Magna's promised investment in Pimlico also could help bring slots into the state, say supporters and opponents of that form of gambling.
Foes believe the owners will turn Pimlico into a "racino," stuffed full of slot machines.
"As soon as I saw the headlines this morning, I thought, 'Well, they really are planning that casino,'" said anti-slots activist Kimberly S. Roman of Glen Burnie.
Roman, co-chair of NOcasiNO Maryland, said she doesn't see any other way to finance extensive racetrack improvements and make the facility profitable without slots.
"If they don't want slots, what do they want?" she asked. "How do they propose to make it profitable? There isn't a new market for horse racing here. I'm very suspicious."
Stronach said in an interview Saturday that "it would be nice to have [slots] in the short run to level the playing field" with tracks in neighboring states that have them, but that horse racing can compete without slots in the long run.
"I don't want solely to hang my hat on slots," he said. "I'm a horseman. I want to make sure we don't lose live racing. Slots are not the only answer."
Stronach also said he intends to move the Preakness to Laurel for a year during construction and build a new automotive parts factory at or near Pimlico. (De Francis clarified that aspect of the plan yesterday, saying the factory would not be built on the 129-acre Pimlico property, but somewhere in Baltimore or Maryland.)
The company's proposal caught the state's top racing official off guard. Louis Ulman, chairman of the racing commission, said he met with Stronach and De Francis on Thursday but that they never mentioned plans to tear down Pimlico.
The plans have raised hopes for a rejuvenated Pimlico. But they also sparked fears that the track might not be rebuilt and that the Preakness, the second jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown, would never return.
"That makes me jittery, too," Mayor Martin O'Malley said of plans to hold the 2004 Preakness at Laurel. "But provided it's just a temporary thing, that may be the price of progress."
At last night's meeting, Del. Lisa A. Gladden of Baltimore asked: "What assurance does the community have that if you take down even one brick of Pimlico you will build it back?"
De Francis said he and Magna would make an "absolutely legally binding" guarantee that the track would be rebuilt.
Several state officials said they were confident the racing commission could make the sale contingent on Magna following through on its promise to rebuild Pimlico and keep the Preakness there.
Polly Warren, president of the Pimlico Good Neighbors Association, asked De Francis why the existing facility couldn't be renovated.
"Why do you have to tear it down and start it new without considering that it's historic?" she asked.
De Francis said that renovation would be more expensive. He said designers could make a new track look historic as was done with Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Pimlico opened in 1870 and was renovated in 1954. Although some structures would qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the track's signature Victorian-style Members Clubhouse was destroyed by fire in 1966, said Martin P. Azola, former vice president of facility development for the Maryland Jockey Club.
Most of the visitor facilities date from the 1950s and 1960s and are "functionally obsolete" for today's racing environment, he said.
Chick Lang, former general manager of Pimlico Race Course, said he does not lament the idea of losing the buildings. What matters most, he said, is preserving the racetrack itself.
"You're going over hallowed ground," he said. "You're talking about the scene of races won by ... Man O' War and Seabiscuit and Secretariat and jockeys such as Eddie Arcaro and Bill Shoemaker and Angel Cordero. You're not going to lose that. That same track will be there. The hallowed ground will be there."
Sun staff writers Greg Garland, Edward Gunts, Tom Keyser and Ken Murray contributed to this article.