12/03/2007 12:00AM

An uneasy fit in corporate clothing

EmailLou Raffetto thought he was eavesdropping at his own funeral. There he was, last Sunday night at Laurel Park, the toast of the annual horsemen's holiday party at the track just four days after being ousted as president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club. Compliments were flowing, and Raffetto would like to think it wasn't just the toddies talking.

"The only time so many people say so many nice things about you is after you've died and gone to heaven," Raffetto said the next morning. "I choke up pretty easy - I'm not always an s.o.b. - and I've got to tell you it was pretty moving."

As the latest subject of Magna Entertainment's racetrack executive replacement program, Raffetto's exit triggered a dramatically different reaction than those of Jim McAlpine, Roman Doroniuk, Andrew Gaughan, John Perotta, Jack Liebau, Bill Bridgen, Brian Tobin, Bill Davis, Chris McCarron, Thomas Hodgson, or Michael Neuman, just to name more than a few.

When Raffetto was dismissed, his constituents among Maryland's horsemen and horseplayers were amazed, although not surprised, and rose quickly to his defense.

"It has been overwhelming," Raffetto said. "I've always felt like I had good rapport with people at all different levels. But I don't think I would have imagined such an outpouring of support. In fact, this may be a good time to retire. After all the nice things being said, it's got to be all downhill from here."

Raffetto, 57, is a Georgetown University grad who studied law but headed for the racetrack instead. "I chose the more ethical route," he likes to say. Still, he knows enough to keep his own counsel while still negotiating his severance package.

Neither should Raffetto have much trouble getting another job in the racing industry, if he is so inclined. He has done most of them anyway, so retraining will hardly be an issue. This is a guy who has been on the racetrack, either part time or full, since he was a 15-year-old summertime Teamster at Monmouth Park, occupying the bottom spot on the totem pole.

"I got whatever job the other Teamsters didn't want," Raffetto recalled. "My first job was driving the ambulance in the morning - the one for people, not horses. I drove tractors in the infield, parking lot trams, sometimes the water truck. And for a few years I drove the patrol judges' car out on the racetrack."

Two of Raffetto's passengers were the young patrol judges Ken Dunn, now president of Calder Race Course, and Bob Kulina, vice president and general manager of Monmouth. One wrong turn, and who knows how racing history might have changed?

"I even managed to squeeze in two years of training horses," Raffetto noted. "How crazy is that? It was 1973 and '74. I'd groomed horses for quite a while, and after four years at Georgetown I managed to pass the written test. The late Bob Durso gave me the barn test, then later on, I claimed a horse off him. For the longest time he'd bust my chops, telling people the horse I claimed was the one he used in my test."

Raffetto made the move from the backside to the front office and worked his way through the ranks. As a racing secretary he got his nails dirty and forged relationships with owners and trainers that have lasted a lifetime. As a management executive, he has been able to call on those relationships in making tough decisions.

However, about all anyone needs to know of the Raffetto record is one simple fact: He got Cigar to run at Suffolk Downs, twice no less, in the 1995 and 1996 runnings of the Massachusetts Handicap.

"I'm very proud of that," Raffetto said. "At the time it was kind of unthinkable: The world's most famous racehorse - at Suffolk!"

With the experience of Magna's large corporate operation now under his belt, Raffetto has worked for just about every form of racetrack ownership, including a variety of privately held companies such as Hialeah Park and Suffolk Downs.

"I think almost anyone would rather be working in a privately or closely held situation rather than a corporate one, simply because there's less bureaucracy," said Raffetto, who went to work for the Maryland Jockey Club when it was still owned by the heirs of Frank De Francis.

"Unfortunately, very seldom does the real world allow for that anymore," he added. "The flipside is with a larger, corporate situation, it brings the ability to bargain better, and very often brings more capital to the table. Magna invested in excess of $40 million in Maryland, and about $22 million of it rebuilding the racetrack here at Laurel. Had it remained in private hands, that is something we'd have never been able to do."

Cut loose in a climate of uncertain racetrack fortunes, Raffetto said he is not in a hurry to land another leadership position right away.

"I haven't been off more than 10 days in 23 years," he said. "So I'm kind of looking forward to taking January and February off, and see what develops."

Easier said than done.

"A couple days ago I was on the phone to a friend," Raffetto noted. "I said I had to hurry up and get dressed and go to work - but I didn't really have to go to work. So the last couple mornings I get up and run for half an hour. At least I'm getting out of my bathrobe."