Pledge to alter historic track

Magna Entertainment vows to turn Saratoga into a year-round venue in its bid to take over state racing franchise

JAMES M. ODATO Capitol bureau
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Wednesday, January 25, 2006

ALBANY - Magna Entertainment Chairman Frank Stronach told state officials Tuesday he would turn Saratoga Race Course into a year-round destination and pledged to improve horse racing in New York if his company gets the rights to operate the state's three major thoroughbred tracks.

Stronach publicly entered the derby for the state's racing franchise with show-stopping testimony that drew smiles from members of the state's Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing, and concern from Saratoga Springs Mayor Valerie Keehn and others who say they want to protect the Saratoga track. A self-made multimillionaire from Austria whose Ontario auto parts empire has branched into racetrack ownership, Stronach said the franchise, which is about to go up for bid, must go to a for-profit venture. Currently, the three tracks - Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct - are run by the nonprofit New York Racing Association.

Stronach faulted NYRA for not maximizing the tracks' potential. He said the tracks should be full-time, year-round entertainment centers. Saratoga, he said, could offer restaurant meals, televised races and betting.

Keehn, however, said Magna's vision for Saratoga is unsettling.

"We're concerned about having an entertainment corporation," she said. "They were representing a different concept for racing."

With the help of a PowerPoint presentation and two top aides, including former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, Stronach told the committee NYRA races should be marketed worldwide to add billions in simulcast revenue. His company, which operates several tracks and has a horse racing TV channel, off-track betting and account-wagering businesses, would only need to be a part-owner of the franchise, he said. But he ruled out partnering with NYRA, which he described as a "club."

With a casino at Aqueduct slated to open in a year, Stronach suggested the state solicit bids separately for casino operations. Casino companies, he said, don't care about horse racing, and casino money is a short-term fix for racing.

"We do not seek domination," Stronach told the committee.

The panel was holding the first of two hearings on putting the franchise up for competitive bid. The hearings conclude today in Manhattan.

NYRA, which also testified and indicated its interest in bidding, has exclusively held the franchise for the three tracks since 1955. The franchise expires at the end of next year. The committee is expected to solicit bids this year and recommend an award in early 2007.

The Legislature must approve any new franchisee.

Magna Entertainment, a pub licly traded company, has invested more than $1 billion in several U.S. tracks it owns in the past seven years and has built training centers, stable facilities, employee dorms, grandstands, slot machine parlors, eateries and other amenities. It has lost millions running the tracks.

"There are certainly questions of whether he's improved the quality of racing at his tracks," said Bennett Liebman, an Albany Law School racing professor who testified. Liebman said the committee could consider bidding out each track as a different franchise.

Stronach, and most others testifying, including NYRA Chairman Charles Hayward, said separating the tracks would not be good for racing and could devalue the assets.

James M. Odato can be reached at 454-5083 or by e-mail at