New Horse Track Planned for Michigan

Magna Entertainment Corp., North America's largest racetrack operator, is expected to get a state license for a new thoroughbred track in Romulus near Detroit Metro Airport, said people familiar with the selection process.

Details were not available Monday, but Ontario-based Magna has planned a $100-million development called Michigan Downs to include shops and an entertainment pavilion.

The announcement planned today by acting state Racing Commissioner Christine White would end several years of speculation over who would receive the coveted license -- or if anyone would want it.

White would not comment on today's announcement. Her spokesman said the order granting the license had not yet been finalized Monday afternoon, but people requesting anonymity confirmed that Magna was the choice.

The racing license was previously held by Ladbroke Detroit Race Course in Livonia, which closed in 1998.

Others hoping for the racing license were Trenton developer Sam Danou and Detroit entrepreneur Don Barden.

The prospects for a new racetrack seemed dampened last fall after Michigan voters virtually slammed the door on allowing slot machines at racetracks.

So-called racinos were touted as the salvation of Michigan's declining horse racing industry.

Passage of Proposal 1 on the November ballot requires that voters approve gaming machines or any other gambling at racetracks before they can be added.

Danou said he had not been contacted by White's office by late Monday, and said he had heard Magna was the choice. He said that the license should go to a Michigan-based developer instead.

Danou said Magna would be another out-of-state company with a major economic stake in the Detroit area, similar to the original ownership of two Detroit casinos by Las Vegas casino operators.

He questioned Magna's viability, noting that the company lost $105 million last year.

"People from other parts of the world are coming and taking over," Danou said. "Magna is a Canadian company. People we put in office, they're not even selling it away, they're giving it away."

Still, the racetrack would be considered a major economic boost for western Wayne County. Magna Entertainment owns 14 other horse racetracks, including Pimlico in Baltimore, home of the Preakness Stakes. The 212-acre project originally planned for Romulus was to include an automotive research center.

Auto parts giant Magna International, which operates 19 plants in Michigan, was once the parent company of Magna Entertainment.

Patti Dickinson, president of the Michigan Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Association, said a Magna-built track in Romulus would be "the No. 1 facility" in Michigan.

She said a Romulus track would mean more horses for her to breed at her farm in Montgomery, near Hillsdale. She owns one racehorse, which runs at Great Lakes Downs in Muskegon. But she said she would "probably race four or five" at Romulus.

"I have clientele at my farm that have between 25 and 30 head of racehorses at a time, and they used to maintain 30 to 35 when we were at DRC," Dickinson said.

Elizabeth Weber, a thoroughbred breeder in Charlotte, said Frank Stronach, the founder of Magna International, has been "a great supporter of Michigan racing."

"I think Romulus is a huge plus," she said. "For me, because I breed my own horses and race them, the biggest impact for me is I will keep my horses and breed them in Michigan."

The racetrack is scheduled to open in 2009.