06/07/2017 11:06AM

With Ritvo in town, changes are on the way

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Tim Ritvo is trying to improve field size, handle, and efficiency at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Tim Ritvo might not have all the answers, but he does have plenty of ideas. The objective – a new lease on life for Santa Anita, even if that requires taking a step backward before moving ahead.

The chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, Ritvo relocated from Florida last month, charged with what he termed “improving business” at Santa Anita. It is a catch-all for his mission, which will include major changes at the Great Race Place.

“The same old status quo does not work,” Ritvo said this week. “I’m just hoping that everyone realizes the crucial, critical point we’re at. And that they’ll try to work with us.”

A lack of entries has exacerbated problems at this meet. Average field size has dwindled to 7.29. The Thursday card this week was canceled due to insufficient entries following a Thursday cancellation for the same reason April 27. This week, Santa Anita will race only three days. Is three-day racing here to stay?

“Maybe a short-term solution,” Ritvo said, acknowledging that the remaining Thursdays at this meet, June 15 and 22, were briefly on the chopping block. But no further cancellations are planned. Ritvo said, “We’re hoping we can fill what we’ve been mandated to run.”

:: Get PPs, analysis for Friday's $513,712 jackpot pick six at Santa Anita

Still, precedent is established. Abbreviated weeks in coming meets will be considered after the current meet ends July 4. Santa Anita reopens Sept. 29.

“Whether we stay in a three-day week next year because of inventory is [undecided],” Ritvo said. “Our ultimate goal would be to run more, have a quality product of at least four days a week.”

Ritvo arrived at Santa Anita last month on a hot streak, having orchestrated successful business form reversals at Gulfstream Park in Florida and at Pimlico and Laurel in Maryland, tracks owned by The Stronach Group.

A former jockey and trainer, Ritvo talked this week about ideas and challenges he faces during a wide-ranging interview at his office in the Santa Anita racing department. Ritvo is friendly, passionate, and candid. In light of the recent atmosphere at Santa Anita, his approach is refreshing.

“We’ve been so entrenched in the old way of doing things,” he said. “We have to look at ourselves first. We have to give the customer what they want, not what we want.”

Ritvo discussed subjects such as takeout rates and fractional wagering, an innovation that essentially drops the minimum bet size to as low as pennies for wagers such as the pick six. He discussed base purses that synchronize with field size – the bigger the field, the higher the purse. He addressed modernization of the racing department, inventory control, and a variety of other subjects that can be addressed as the remainder of 2017 unfolds.

Below are Ritvo’s thoughts on a number of issues facing Santa Anita. Ritvo doesn’t have all the answers yet, but just that he is willing to discuss a subject such as takeout is important.

Takeout

“Takeout is too high, there’s no question about it,” Ritvo said. “It’s the scariest thing in the world [for racetracks] because our revenue streams are so limited. We can’t take 20 percent from a customer and expect them to bet day in and day out. The introduction of new bets with reduced takeout brings down the blend a little bit, but it’s not the answer.”

The pick-five takeout at Santa Anita is 14 percent; it is higher for other exotic wagers. Takeout for two-horse exotic wagers is 22.68 percent; three or more is 23.68 percent.

Wagering

Ritvo is interested in fractional wagering, which allows small-bankrolled bettors access to wagers that typically require a high outlay. For example, a $2 pick six with two horses in each leg costs $128. Allowing bettors to wager on the pick six in 25-cent increments would reduce the outlay for the above ticket to $16.

Ritvo said he and other Santa Anita officials are discussing fractional wagering and that the tote system is capable of handling the change.

Base purse

Another new idea, this matches purse to field size. For example, say a particular claiming level has a $16,000 purse – the minimum – with six runners. For each additional runner, $1,000 is added to the purse. At higher class levels, incremental increases could be higher.

Ritvo said, “A guy that beats 11 horses deserves to get a few bucks more – he’s running for $22,000 – compared to the guy that beats five horses.”

He also will explore an idea allowing for individual horses who attract more handle (i.e., favorites) to receive a greater share of the purse.

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Racing office

Critics allege that racing offices are unaware of available horse inventory. It is tough to keep track of some 3,000 horses and the races in which they could run without technology. Most of the work is done by hand. Ritvo envisions change.

“We have to do a much better job of inventory control,” he said. “We have to put those [horses] into a computer, and we have to spit out what we have on the backside and what’s ready to run. We are going to do a better data analysis.”

Ritvo wants a centralized racing office able to receive entries online. “At 11, tell [the horsemen] what races are going, one last shot to go in, and that’s it. Not – who is in there? How many horses do I have to beat? That stuff has got to end.”

Interviews have begun for a data analyst, a computer-skilled employee who can execute modernization of the racing department.

Changes are happening at Santa Anita.

“Everything is going to be evaluated, everything is going to be looked at,” Ritvo said.

The remainder of 2017 will be interesting.