09/08/2011 11:54AM

Q&A: Lou Raffetto

Benoit & Associates

Previously an executive at racetracks in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland, as well as with the National Steeplechase Association, he is now president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. He was interviewed last weekend at Del Mar.

Birthdate: February 18, 1950, in Neptune, N.J.

Family: wife, Fran; daughters Joanna, Regina; son, Louis

Got into racing because. . .
I started working at Monmouth Park in the summers when I was in high school. But what led me down this path was the fact that in my senior year in college at Georgetown, my parents wouldn’t let me buy a motorcycle, so I bought a horse in partnership with a trainer at Shenandoah Downs. Of course, he won his first race. After that happened, I passed up going to law school to work at the racetrack. I was a groom and a trainer before moving to the racing office. I like to say I had to choose between law school and the racetrack and took the more ethical route.

You got the job with the TOC a little more than two months ago. After living on the East Coast your whole life, how do you like California so far?
What’s not to like? What’s really nice is that my first experience has been Del Mar. The weather is ideal. The racing has been very good. The toughest thing for me is the three-hour time change when I want to communicate with people on the East Coast. My wife and I are totally enjoying it. Some people were surprised I chose to come out here, because I’m perceived as an ‘East Coast guy.’ I’m doing my best to adjust, which is not a hard thing to do.

After running racetracks and the NSA, how have you adjusted to leading an ownership group?
It’s an interesting switch. People from horsemen’s groups, like Alan Foreman of the THA, whom I used to sit across when I was in management in Maryland, kid me about coming over from the dark side. While it is a little different, I’m fortunate that I’m involved with an outstanding board of directors, individuals like chairman Jack Owens, Mike Pegram, a sitting congressman in Dennis Cardoza, and a world-renowned heart surgeon in Dr. Mark Dedomenico, in addition to many other talented people. I’m working with a top-flight crew that really cares about racing, specifically California racing.

In the two months I’ve been here, I’ve seen the effectiveness of an ownership organization. Using Maryland as an example, the horsemen’s groups are largely led by trainers. That’s not a knock, just a fact. Out here, I’ve witnessed how effective an owners’ group can be. For instance, regarding Lasix, we believe that it is a necessary therapeutic medication that horses of all ages should be allowed to use, and we need to maintain that position. I’ve had trainers from other jurisdictions say it’s important to have the backing of the owners on the issue. That’s a telling statement, that you need a strong owners’ group.

What are the areas on which you want to focus the TOC’s energy over the next year?
Lasix is an extremely important agenda for the TOC, the CTT, and the CTBA. Besides that, we have to tell our story, which we are in the process of doing. We need to rebuild the image of California racing nationwide. We’re starting to turn the corner. We’ve had an increase in purses, instituted the Ship and Win program, and want to give people more of an incentive to breed in California. All that can lead to greater field size. We’ve had approximately 80 Ship and Win horses, which added approximately 200 starts. We believe the purse increases will continue to be an incentive to bring horses here. We’ve already seen new outfits come to Del Mar, and they are staying for the fall. We want to incentivize individuals to breed mares in California, where we are down 40 percent in foal production, which matches the national decline. If we can maintain these purse levels, we can bring more owners back.

One of the reasons purses are high is because the takeout on some exotic wagers was raised, which was not well received by many bettors. What is your position on reviewing that decision?
We’re willing to tweak it. I’m not personally crazy about having raised the takeout on two-leg wagers. Santa Anita stated at a recent racing board meeting that they would be willing to lower the take, so we made a proposal to them that we would shave 1 percent on our end if they would shave 1 percent on their end, but there has been no response to that concept at this point in time. Right now, it looks like that is on the back burner.

There is a movement afoot to try to decertify the TOC. You arrived in the middle of that situation. What are your thoughts about the decertification movement, and what is TOC doing, if anything, to address some of the concerns raised by those backing the decertification?
There has been a lot of misinformation put out by the CTHA (California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association). At this point in time, only pure owners have the right to vote. The law that allows an owner-trainer to vote and also to be part of the board had sunset. The TOC sought fix-it legislation last year to restore their rights, but the CTT (California Thoroughbred Trainers), led by Darrell Vienna at that time, blocked the legislation. Now, the CTHA − of which Darrell Vienna is an integral part − wants to open up the TOC board to owner-trainers with no quotas to determine how many would be pure owners. As a point of fact, individuals holding both an owner and a trainer license make up less than 5 percent of the owners in the state. The very same person who blocked the legislation is now seeking this change. The truth of the matter is their group is looking to take over the TOC and merge with the CTT. But it’s more effective to have the trainers have the CTT and have the TOC work with the CTT on issues like Lasix, as we have been doing.

But do they have any concerns you think need to be addressed?
Some of the things they talk about, we’ve already done. But the thing that needs to be emphasized is that we are a different TOC. I wouldn’t say the TOC has done everything right. In the past, some of the leadership of the TOC behaved in a manner that was not in the best interests of the organization. They acted as though they were above it all. The new TOC − we’ve asked people to hit the reset button − is much more approachable. We’re more willing to reach out and work with the various racing entities. It’s just a shame that we have to deal with a possible decertification, when there are so many positives going on. Instead we’re spending time, effort, and money dealing with this decertification issue.

You must have taken this job knowing full well that there are plenty of contentious issues in California. Do you look at that as a challenge, or were you just interested in spending the summer at Del Mar?
Both! I’ve never been afraid of challenges, going back to when I left Monmouth to reopen Suffolk in 1992. I came here with my eyes wide open. I passed up an opportunity to stay in New Jersey and work with Morris Bailey at Monmouth. I saw this as a true opportunity to help California, help revive it to the level where it once was. I believe that at the end of the day, the TOC will be successful. If the TOC loses, California loses. I didn’t come out here to lose.