02/06/2015 11:14AM

Beyer: Ritvo has hands full reviving Maryland racing

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – As Gulfstream Park was experiencing the most successful year in its history, handling $1.2 billion in wagers during 2014, its parent company gave track president Tim Ritvo an additional task. It asked him to revive Thoroughbred racing in Maryland.

Considering that Laurel Park and Pimlico have long suffered from the deterioration of their facilities, defections by their customers, and ceaseless warfare between management and horsemen, Ritvo’s new assignment might appear to be a punishment. But he accepted his mission with enthusiasm, and the Maryland horse industry is taking notice. “He’s come in like a house afire,” said Bruce Quade, chairman of the state’s racing commission.

Gulfstream has always done robust business in the winter months; top stables from the East annually migrate here, and the large horse population produces large fields that horseplayers love to bet. But Frank Stronach, who owns Gulfstream and the Maryland tracks, wasn’t satisfied with a mere winter season; he wanted year-round racing for his Florida operation.

He finally got his wish after making a deal to obtain the summer dates that Calder Race Course had traditionally controlled, and then to operate Calder in the fall under the name Gulfstream Park West.

Many skeptics thought it was an insane idea to operate when the Northern stables had gone home and the summer heat and rain made for less-than-ideal conditions. But Gulfstream’s expanded racing under Ritvo’s management generated average daily wagering of $3.5 million during the summer meeting. The results emboldened Stronach to think that the “Florida model” could be exported, and he asked Ritvo to start dividing his time between Miami and Laurel.

“Maryland has been a drag on the Stronach Group,” Ritvo acknowledged, and he immediately recognized – as every customer does – that a significant part of the problem is the decrepit condition of Laurel and Pimlico.

Either they both need major renovations or else Maryland needs a brand-new racetrack. Yet Ritvo believes that deciding the fate of these facilities now would be premature. “Before you start spending hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, “you’ve got to have a business model that lets you improve your profits.”

So, for the time being, Ritvo said, “I’m looking at the low-hanging fruit.” His initial changes include the installation of some 200 new flat-screen televisions, the opening of a new restaurant, and a general spruce-up of the facilities. Long-suffering Maryland horseplayers may be as stunned by these improvements as if they had gazed on the Taj Mahal for the first time.

Yet even if Maryland had a showplace for a racing facility, the benefits would be uncertain because few U.S. tracks attract large crowds in an era when horseplayers can bet from simulcast facilities or from home by phone or computer. Ritvo knows the facts of life as well as anyone. Of Gulfstream’s impressive betting totals, 93 percent comes from customers away from the track. And these are customers who mostly ignore the Maryland product.

What can be done?

◗ Horseplayers love big fields that pose a handicapping challenge and offer the potential of large payoffs. When Gulfstream started operating in the summertime, Ritvo said, unapologetically, “What we lacked in quality we made up with quantity.” The track will card 14-horse fields of low-level maidens on turf, and fans will bet them with gusto. Since Maryland received an infusion of purse money from slot machines in the state, the size of its fields has been respectable, but Ritvo surely will try to make them as big as possible.

◗ Nothing frustrates horseplayers more than the perception that trainers are cheating regularly by using illegal drugs. In Maryland, such suspicions have been commonplace. Ritvo noted that the state has had a surprising number of trainers “who work miracles and win with 30 and 40 percent of their starters.” He declared, “We can’t have people saying, ‘Look at how these guys cheat and rob the public.” Fortunately, he has in Quade a staunch ally on the integrity issue. The racing commission last weekend suspended three trainers for the illegal use of steroids and threw the book at one of them, banning him for 13 months.

Ritvo knows that there is no quick fix for Maryland, but he hopes that improvements to the ontrack experience and the racing product will gradually boost betting at Laurel from its present average of $1.4 million per day. That modest level of wagering in not merely a symptom of Maryland’s problems – it is one of the problems because wagering pools are too small to attract the serious bettors who drive tracks’ business.

Last Sunday, Laurel offered seven pick threes with an average pool size of $2,607 – minus the onerous 25.75 percent cut that the track takes from many of its exotic wagers. No rational gambler could play these races.

So, here are a few modest suggestions for Ritvo to consider at Laurel. Discontinue wagers like the overlapping pick threes and daily doubles that cannibalize each other; offer fewer betting options in order to bolster the pools that customers want to play. Lower the 25.75 percent takeout on exotic wagers as a signal that Maryland cares about the betting public. Offer a pick four or pick five with a special ultra-low takeout, and guarantee a pool size of $25,000 to inject some spice into the betting menu.

The Stronach Group and the various segments of the Maryland racing industry are unified in their commitment to improve the sport’s business, but they face a difficult task. Bettors are creatures of habit. They supported Gulfstream’s summer racing because they knew and respected the Gulfstream brand.

There was a time when Maryland had similar prestige in the simulcast marketplace, but over the years, its racing declined to minor-league status. Bettors across the country have had little reason to pay attention to Laurel and Pimlico for the last two decades, and their habits will not change overnight.

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