12/01/2011 12:27PM

Q&A: Tim Ritvo

Barbara D. Livingston
Tim Ritvo with his wife, Kathy, who saddled Mucho Macho Man in all three Triple Crown races this year.

A former jockey and trainer, he is now president and general manager of Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino, which opens its meeting Saturday.

Birthdate: Nov. 29, 1964, in Everett, Mass.

Family: wife, Kathy; daughter, Dominique; son, Michael

Got into racing because . . . My dad owned some horses, and we lived just down the street from Suffolk Downs. I used to go with him to the races, and I absolutely loved it. I started galloping horses, went to Ocala after that, and that was it. I started to work for trainer Bill Perry on the backside after school when I was 16. During the summers, I went to Ocala. My mother made me graduate high school before I could ride as a jockey.

Gulfstream is opening about a month earlier than in recent years. What do you think are the advantages of that? It’s something that the horsemen have been looking for in recent years. They wanted to come down here a little earlier and leave a little earlier. Hopefully, it fits into their program. We think we will have a better product. It’s a good industry move. We have the village and the entertainment package here, so along with the Christmas atmosphere − the holiday season, with everything decorated − all of that makes the whole thing come together as a destination place.

What have been the challenges of getting racing fans, who are creatures of habit, aware of the earlier opening? We were nervous, of course, in the beginning, but we think December has to be better than April for this to be a good business move, and I think it will be. We’ve done billboards, radio, and television spots. We’ve done a lot of banner ads on industry publication websites. And, with the horsemen, we’ve called a lot of them and kept on them, saying, “Don’t forget: December 3rd, December 3rd, December 3rd.” We’ve been working on this since last Saratoga.

What are the time demands like now compared to when you were training? Training horses is one of the toughest jobs that anyone can have. Seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and all the highs and lows. The time I spent as a trainer has really paid off in what I’m doing now. I still put in seven days a week, still put in 12 hours a day. I believe that work ethic comes from being a trainer. Lots of trainers would be successful in any other business because of their work ethic. Having that work ethic and knowing some of the situations I’ll be dealing with, hopefully, that will help me become more successful.

What do you find most gratifying about working in track management? Last meet we were up 15 percent ontrack and 7 1/2 percent nationwide in handle. Hopefully what I bring to the game is knowledge of the backside and the frontside, what customers want, the type of product they want, what they want to bet on. We want to try to increase handle, and have good customer service. The opportunity I’ve been given by Mr. Stronach, I think it shows his love of horse racing to put someone familiar with horse racing in front of his flagship track. I want to help bring racing back to national prominence again, bring it back to where it should be.”

Do you feel that having been a horseman makes you more understanding of the concerns jockeys, trainers, and owners have when they come to you in your current capacity? Having me in a position like this bridges the gap between the corporate bosses and the backside, the owners and trainers. I can explain to both sides what’s important, that we need to make it a viable business and also address the concerns of owners, trainers, and backside people.”

How much involvement do you have in the gaming side of the business at Gulfstream? I immerse myself in every aspect of the game. I like the whole, entire picture. When Mr. Stronach gave me the job, he told me to dig into all issues. Being new at it, I’m learning that side of it all the time. The slot machines, the gaming side, it’s more about numbers – how many machines do you have, what’s the hold, how much of a percentage are you making? The thing I like is that it contributes to the purse structure. If we do well in the slot end, we have more money to give away, which is really my passion.

Your wife, Kathy, got a lot of deserved attention for her training of Mucho Macho Man this past year. How gratifying was that for you and your family? It was truly exciting. I wasn’t going to walk over with her at the Kentucky Derby. I wanted it to be her thing. She told me, You better come. And for me, personally, it was the most amazing thing. To see her there from where she came from, literally on her death bed, to see her fight through that, the will to live for her children, was an unbelievable feeling. To see her now, healthy, compared to three years ago, November 13, when she got the heart, there’s no words to explain it. There’s no words to explain how sick she was, for how long, and than have a horse like that and experience that.

How difficult was it for you to go through Kathy’s recovery from a heart transplant? It was brutal. To see someone so sick and suffering so much, there were times you thought, “Get the heart or put her out of her misery.” I think back to those nights toward the end when she was really sick, there were times I didn’t think she’d get up the next morning. And then a couple of years later, she’s walking over for the Derby. It’s unbelievable. It couldn’t have been any worse, the way she was living before she got the heart.

Who’s the best horse you’ve seen? It’s hard to pick against Zenyatta. She was so impressive. But maybe Cigar.

Hobbies? None. I’m sick. I don’t recommend what I do. I don’t miss a day. Two years, I haven’t taken a day off. I love what I’m doing. I’ve still got to root for the New England teams.

Future ambitions? To continue to try to improve Thoroughbred racing and bring it back to national prominence. I’m just a small piece of it, but I really want to give my all to a game that I love. Everything in my life I owe to this game. Kathy getting her heart, that came after meeting Kenny Noe, who introduced me to Jay Wise, who owned Southern Wine and Spirits and has a statue at the University of Miami. On December 22, 2001, she was pregnant with our third kid. She was diagnosed at the University of Miami. She lost the baby. It was seven or eight years before her health took a nosedive. But if we hadn’t met these kind people, if Jay Wise doesn’t send her to the chief of cardiology at the University of Miami, if any of those pieces is missing, who knows what happens? I owe all I’ve got to racing. I want to do something to make a difference.