By Seth Daniel
One of the top executives in North American horse racing grew up in Beachmont and he was back in town this past Monday.
However, he wasn’t back to reminisce with old friends, but to make his company’s intentions known on Beacon Hill that they hope to bring back live racing to Massachusetts – something that those in the shadow of Suffolk Downs have heard for years is impossible.
But count Tim Ritvo as one Revere guy who doesn’t agree with that eulogy for live racing in his home state.
Ritvo is the chief operating officer (COO) for the Stronach Group, the largest live horseracing operators in North America, and he told the Journal on Monday that Stronach hopes to partner with George Carney of the former Raynham Dog Track to build out a new Thoroughbred racing facility.
For Ritvo, who grew up next to Suffolk Downs, won 500 races at Suffolk Downs as a jockey and even met his wife – renowned Trainer Kathy (Pietro) Ritvo – at Suffolk Downs, racing can flourish in Massachusetts – particularly given that the casino-funded Horse Racing Development Fund is ripe for use.
“We think racing run properly, there’s a market for it,” said Ritvo. “Are the grand old days of five days a week getting 20,000 to come to the track gone? Yes, 100 percent. They’re gone everywhere, but it doesn’t mean a facility that houses 5,000 people and with a good simulcast network and correct OTBs (off track bets) and a small race meet – those economic models still exist and are successful in a lot of our jurisdictions. We’ve added race days in most of our jurisdictions that we’ve operated in and we think Boston has a market still. There’s $100 million in brick and mortar simulcast betting and probably another $100 million in ADW (Advance-Deposit Wagering) betting in the state, so that’s a couple $100 million that should be able to subsidize a 30-day race.”
On Monday, Ritvo was touring Beacon Hill for the Stronach Group to meet with various state officials about their hopeful plan to save racing in the Bay State, and bring the breeders, horsemen and farms back into relevance here.
They visited legislators, the Agriculture Secretary, the Commerce Secretary and the Racing Commission – now part of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. He said they got a warm welcome on what was a cold and rainy day in Boston.
The first stop, however, was not Beacon Hill, but rather Raynham – where they have finally found a willing partner in racing legend George Carney, who operated Raynham for years before he was forced out of business by a state ballot question that outlawed dog racing.
“It’s not perfectly ideal, but he’s an institution in Massachusetts and he’s a dedicated pari-mutuel guy,” said Ritvo. “We thought it would be a good partnership and we toured the site with him and his son, Chris, and we’re going to look at some drawings and see what it would take to build out a racetrack. We want to see how big to build it, whether it’s six or seven furlongs we don’t know yet. We’ll try to use the current facility with some upgrades and try to partner. We thought we could get in for a fairly decent price and the only thing we asked for is some legislative changes to the simulcast laws to make it feasible to do business. We’re here to make money, no question about it, but if it works and we put it on a piece of paper and the horsemen get more race days…We start at a 30 day commitment and like everything else, if it makes money for 30 days, we could run more.”
That’s music to the ears of the horsemen, especially the Revere-based Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA) led by Revere’s Bill Lagorio – who accompanied Ritvo on Monday. The MTHA is a second horsemen’s association in the state and represent several hundred horsemen now, Lagorio said. They hope to be the group to run the races for the partnership, and Ritvo’s visit confirmed something they have believed since forming a few years ago at the Beachmont VFW Hall – that racing can make a comeback if done right.
Ritvo, who is a Revere High graduate of 1982, and was baptized and married at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, said this wasn’t the first time his company tried to come into the state.
He said they cheered for Suffolk Downs to win the casino bid, and when that didn’t work out, Stronach tried to help out by offering to lease the track to keep live racing going.
“We requested to see if there was any possibility of leasing the facility,” he said. “We thought under the current economics where purse money would come from slots, that there would have been an opportunity to run a smaller meet – 30 days – and lease the facility and control the simulcast content of the state. But they weren’t interested and at that point we just left it alone and we started to look at other sites.”
That’s what led them to Carney, and if Suffolk Downs wasn’t going to work, they saw a good opportunity in Raynham.
“We would partner with him and I think he would love to see a nice course there, whether we put lights up or not or make it just a grass course…There’s lots of things to think about and we’re very early in the process, but at the same time, things could ramp up very fast,” said Ritvo.
Now, they hope to get some legislative changes that would make the venture feasible, and they would also prefer the Legislature to turn over the oversight to the MGC. If they were going to do live racing, he said, they would like to control the state’s simulcast signal – as is done most other places.
“The track that runs the races gets the rights to the simulcast signal and controls the state…,” he said. “If a race comes in from New York, it should come in through the live Thoroughbred track and then be distributed to the OTB (off track betting) networks so they get a piece. We’re the movie studio, the actors are the horsemen and jockeys. Everyone should get their piece when signals come through.”
Ritvo concluded by saying his ties to racing and Revere and Massachusetts played no small part in the decision to try to enter the market, but he also said it’s not just a feel-good story.
It’s a real business decision that they think makes dollars and sense.
“Stronach Group has been excellent to me,” he said. “They took a guy from the backside and created a position for me as chief operating officer to mend the fences between corporate America and the horsemen – to try to figure out a balance so we are true partners. Frank Stronach is just a great guy who wants an open door policy with the horsemen to work together. This is not just about passion and not just about a feel-good story. It’s that we believe there’s an economic and financial return for an investment in this market or we wouldn’t be doing it.”