11/20/2015 11:26PM

Ritvo says goal is to race 200 days a year in Maryland

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LAUREL, Md. – A crowd of about 400 turned out Friday evening for a town-hall meeting at Laurel Park, where Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, discussed his company's view of the future for Maryland racing.

Other speakers included Bruce Quade of the Maryland Racing Commission; Tim Keefe, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association; Josh Ponds and Cricket Goodall of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association; and Jim Steele, president of the Maryland Million.

Questions were taken from the audience, many of whom asked about the future of Pimlico Race Course, the second-oldest track in the country and the home of the Preakness Stakes.

Ritvo said he was sent from Florida to Maryland 10 months ago because Frank Stronach was not happy with racing in the Mid-Atlantic. Ritvo said his job is to fix things.

"We've found a lot of things that aren't right," Ritvo said. "And a lot of them are our fault."

Since Ritvo came to Maryland and Sal Sinatra was hired as the general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, The Stronach Group has spent close to $20 million renovating Laurel Park's grandstand and backstretch. Improvements on a smaller scale have been made at Pimlico.

Ritvo said that before infrastructure improvements are finished, the total cost could be $200 million. He also said the goal is to race 200 days a year in Maryland. Last week, the Maryland Jockey Club requested 157 racing dates for Laurel and Pimlico in 2016.

Although the Maryland Jockey Club does not operate a casino, under a 10-year deal that began four years ago, it receives a portion of casino revenue. Ritvo said to protect this revenue source, racing must prove to the state that it is worth putting money into the horse industry.

"A lot of regions are happy when slots revenue goes into purses, but it does not work," he said. "Everywhere racinos come in, racing gets put on the back burner. Slots revenue has been reduced in a lot of places, including Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, Iowa, and Canada, and that leads to reduced racing days."

Ritvo said the key is to increase betting handle and to improve the presence of the Maryland Jockey Club's simulcast signal around the country.

"We don't want what has happened in other slots regions to happen here," he said. "We want our business to thrive. We want the state to recognize that putting slots revenue into horse racing is an investment in a growing industry."

It will take a number of different initiatives to accomplish that.

"We need a good product, great stabling and living conditions for our workers, and marketing initiatives in Baltimore and Washington," Ritvo said. "Integrity is a very important part of growing our signal. People don't want to read about bad things happening, about cheating. We have to drive that out."

Handle in Maryland is up almost $60 million this year from 2014, according to Maryland Jockey Club officials. The offtrack betting parlor at the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore has handled $6 million in its first six months. The parlor was estimated to handle $10 million a year, but it is likely to surpass that. The Maryland Jockey Club also is in talks to open another OTB at Timonium.

Quade of the Maryland Racing Commission said, "Racing had a bad image in Annapolis. We were seen as fighting amongst each other. That has changed. We are now viewed in a strong sense that we have gotten our act together. We are dependent on [video lottery terminal] revenue. We must protect it."

Many of the questions from the audience asked Ritvo to assure attendees that racing at Pimlico would be preserved and that the Preakness Stakes would remain there.

"Everything is on the table for both facilities," he said. "Nothing is etched in stone, but Pimlico is not the area where we want to run 200 days. Any Fortune 500 company would come in, rebuild Pimlico, run the Preakness and make all that money, and have a 30-day meet every year. We need to take care of racing for the entire year, not just those two days."

Pimlico has a number of problems. The track is not located in a desirable area of Baltimore. The track also has engineering issues. It likely would have to be torn down and rebuilt instead of being renovated, according to Maryland Jockey Club officials.

In its 2016 dates request, the Pimlico meet has been shortened from 37 days this year to 28.

"Laurel has good bones," Ritvo said. "We want to take down the glass that separates the grandstand seats from the racetrack and move people closer to the action. We want to build luxury suites. We want to bring the Breeders' Cup to Laurel Park in the near future."

Other questions pertained to the ongoing simulcast dispute between the Maryland Jockey Club and Penn National Gaming, which owns Charles Town and Penn National Race Course. Right now, the Maryland Jockey Club and Penn Gaming are not allowing the other to simulcast their races. Maryland bettors who want to wager on the night signals at Charles Town and Penn National have to go to Rosecroft Raceway, which also is owned by Penn Gaming.

"It's not all our fault," Ritvo said. "It could be worked out in a few weeks."

Another question asked if any progress had been made about coordinating race dates with other Mid-Atlantic states. "We are willing to work out a cooperative schedule, but it has to benefit Maryland racing," Ritvo said.

Someone else asked what the plans are for the now-empty Bowie training facility. "No decisions have been made," Ritvo said.

Steele of the Maryland Million was asked if any thought had been given to moving the Maryland Million from its traditional fall date to avoid competition with college football and other activities in the region. It didn't appear that topic had been discussed.

A lot was accomplished in Maryland racing this year, but it is clear that a lot more needs to be done. The town hall was a good forum for discussion, and Josh Ponds of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association perhaps best captured the feeling of many in attendance.

"My brother Mike and I run Country Life Farm in Bel Air," he said. "It's been in our family a long time. There is a lot of development in the area, and we have kind of discouraged our kids from getting into the business. The bottom of the breeding game was in 2011 and 2012. In 2012, Maryland's foal crop fell below 300. But now there is renewed hope for the future."