01/13/2015 2:03PM

Ritvo looking to dig Maryland racing out of hole

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Jim Dunleavy
Laurel Park could see renovations as the Stronach Group tries to increase crowds at its Maryland tracks.

Maryland racing is at a tipping point. Betting handle has been in decline for years and the outdated facilities of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course lack the amenities needed to draw and retain customers.

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group – which owns Laurel, Pimlico, and the Bowie training center as parent company of the Maryland Jockey Club – and Sal Sinatra, the newly hired general manager of the MJC, have been at Laurel on a daily basis since the beginning of December. Both say their goal is to “right the ship” as the Stronach Group has done at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita.

“Maryland has been a heavy loser for us,” Ritvo said. “Maryland has been a drain on the Stronach Group.”

According to figures supplied by the Maryland Jockey Club, average daily all-sources handle on races held at the MJC tracks has declined by more than 30 percent in the last 10 years.

The Maryland tracks do not have slots, but the horsemen receive a subsidy from casinos in the state. Allowance purses at Laurel range from $42,000 to $50,000.

“Some of our problems are not very obvious from the outside,” Ritvo said. “The slot subsidies have plugged holes for purses, but we need to use the subsidies to grow our product. We have lost pari-mutuel handle, while the horsemen have gained from slots. Revenue is down.”

The most valuable franchise in Maryland racing is the Preakness. While the race has become more profitable in recent years, the aging Pimlico facility limits what can be done with the event. Laurel is likely to be renovated, but it is not out of the question that Pimlico could be rebuilt from the ground up. The addition of luxury suites and VIP areas would allow the MJC to maximize revenue on the Preakness, just as Churchill Downs has done with the Kentucky Derby.

“Everything is on the table,” Ritvo said. “We are ready to throw our financial muscle behind it, but the financial model has to work first.”

Ritvo hopes to complete a comprehensive plan for the future of the Maryland Jockey Club within six months. He and Sinatra are looking at such in-house things as marketing and customer service, but also at wider issues, including simulcast pricing agreements and the “relationships we have with our partners in the industry.”

Talks are under way to coordinate schedules with other tracks in the region, especially Delaware Park, and about combining some departments, possibly the racing offices. Ritvo has spoken to Maryland horsemen about lowering takeout on some wagers to increase handle.

“Hopefully, we can tweak our takeout and get pet people back betting on our product,” he said. “If we can do that, we can drive more revenue back into the business.”

The quality of racing is one of the state’s stronger points. There are seasoned horsemen in Maryland, with deep roots in the sport. There is a talented jockey colony. The day-to-day cards are playable.

“I think we have a good product, a decent product, and that’s why I am encouraged,” Ritvo said. “I think we can make it a great product if we can make our financial model work.”

Tim Keefe, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said he is glad to have Ritvo and Sinatra at the track on a daily basis.

“For the last five or 10 years, the focus was never truly here,” Keefe said. “The objective in Maryland was just to keep things afloat. Right now, it’s embarrassing to bring an owner to the track. The facilities are not good. The food is horrible, the attitudes of some employees and the tellers is brusque.”

Under the 10-year agreement signed by the Maryland Jockey Club and the horsemen in 2012, the MJC guarantees 100 days of racing per year and the horsemen have to cover expenses for additional days. But if the business were profitable, the MJC would likely want to race more than 100 days a year.

“It costs the horsemen $4 million or $5 million for 40 days,” Keefe said. “In Florida, the slots money is used for other things. In California, there are no subsidies. We have to make the money off the pari-mutuels.”

Ritvo and Sinatra have already made some introductory changes.

In the last month, Laurel’s post time has been moved so it no longer conflicts with Gulfstream Park. Rolling daily doubles and pick threes were added to the wagering menu.

Ground has been broken on new barns that will accommodate 150 horses, something that has been promised for years. It was announced last week that Laurel will race Sundays rather than Thursdays in February and March.

“The majority of horsemen are behind Tim,” Keefe said. “And part of that has to do with Tim. He was a rider, a trainer. He is looking at things from our perspective but also knows the business side of the game.”