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Q&A With Maryland Jockey Club President Sal Sinatra

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A quick winter hop from Philadelphia to Miami ended up leading Sal Sinatra on a new adventure that he couldn’t have imagined before that blizzard-like weekend in Philly in early 2014; for later that same year, he was named by the Aurora, Ontario-based Stronach Group as vice president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club.

Sinatra joined Stronach last December after working 15 years in Pennsylvania for Parx Racing, owner of Philadelphia Park. Stronach owns Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, as well as Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita Park, both of California, and Gulfstream Park, in Southern Florida.

With the upgrades recently completed at Gulfstream, Stronach and Sinatra have begun to focus on the long-awaited makeovers at Laurel and Pimlico, which are estimated to cost more than $250 million and will take place in stages during the next several years.

Stronach selected New Jersey-native Sinatra to orchestrate the effort due to his reputation for building audiences. That’s what’s needed at Laurel, which holds the majority of Maryland’s racing days, and the much more nationally visible Pimlico, which is located in North Baltimore and has long served as the home of the Preakness Stakes, one of horse racing’s storied Triple Crown events.

On that note, Sinatra has something else on his mind these days. That’s figuring out how to work with a lesser payout from Maryland’s slot machine revenue, 7% of which goes toward subsidizing racetrack purses and funding incentives for in-state thoroughbred breeding, with another 2.5% targeted to a racetrack facilities fund.

What made the Maryland tracks appealing as a purchase option for Stronach?

Late in my time with Parx, I decided to take a quick vacation down to Gulfstream. While I was away, there was a snowstorm back home, and I ended up getting snowed in for about 10 days. I came to be quite impressed with the track and thought it had more potential, so I told the management to keep me in mind in case of any openings. Then, less than a year later, I was working for them.

What is Stronach’s market share?

Between its holdings of Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita, Golden Gate and the two Maryland Jockey Club tracks, Stronach holds nearly 40% of the horse racing industry market.

Maryland horse racing has been experiencing a resurgence in recent years. Where do you see it now, and where is it headed?

We’re in the midst of a turning point for Maryland racing. Laurel and Pimlico hadn’t received much attention in recent years. However, Stronach made an approximately $100 million investment in Gulfstream Park over 10 years. During that span, the owners found that the upgrades should be not only about enhancing the race track experience, but making it more of an outdoor entertainment hub.

So, we’re upgrading the two Maryland tracks with that approach in mind and, between the two, have already spent $15 million. Moving forward, the question now concerns how much you spend and how soon can you make such smaller investments pay off.

What plans do you have for improvements to Laurel and Pimlico?

We’re working on areas within the grandstands by adding 85 TVs with headsets at both properties at a cost exceeding $800,000, and spending $90,000 more on a 17.5-foot by 8.5-foot [high-definition] screen in the simulcast area that will be ready for the Maryland Million on Oct. 17.

We’re also considering adding a sports bar that would be open to the public at regular hours, and have renovated both existing restaurants at Laurel; [we’re also] upgrading the food court and adding an e-gaming room. Basically, we’re just trying to right the ship and clean it up. It’s still my first season, so I’m learning about what we need to do.

There has been talk of abandoning the old Pimlico Race Track in North Baltimore and building a new facility downtown, near Camden Yards. What’s your take on that suggestion?

We don’t own any land near Camden Yards, so that doesn’t look to be in our plans.

What are your concerns about the continuous decrease in the number of slot machines in favor of gaming tables at Maryland casinos and their effect on the MJC’s take?

It definitely affects the horseman’s purse account, and we’re all holding our breath waiting for National Harbor to open. Bear in mind, however, that sometimes it pays for the casino to take slot machines out, because its win-per-machine goes up and the overall payout stays in the same ballpark, anyway.

The 30th anniversary of the Maryland Million is coming up on Oct. 17. How popular is the race now, and what do you see happening in its future?

One of my goals is to grow the race to what it used to be. It peaked around 2007, which resulted in a record handle of around $7.5 million. Now that the breeding industry within the state has turned the corner and the foal crop in Maryland is increasing every year, the field sizes and quality of racing should be improving annually.

It’s still very popular among the horsemen. This’ll be my first time working the event, so I’ll be making evaluations and contemplating any needed changes.

There has been some talk of moving the Preakness to Laurel in the future. Do you think that might eventually come to pass?

Right now, we’re still planning the run at Pimlico, but know that it’s the second oldest track in America. There was an issue with the water system at the recent Preakness, and we lost some fans due to the recent unrest in the city.

However, it still attracted more than 131,000 people. You have your traditionalists and other observers who don’t want the city to take another hit by losing the race, so it would be a tough political situation to address.

So, I don’t see it happening soon. Once the transit-oriented development (TOD) at Laurel unfolds, it may be easier to make that decision.

Now that Howard County is getting its plans for the TOD at Laurel Park in order, what’s the news on the Anne Arundel (which is home to the track) side?

I haven’t had any contact with either county, but anytime you can help get people to the park via mass transit, that’s a bonus. I’m still sizing up the traffic. I get here at 6:30 a.m., so I don’t see much of it.

Early this year, and after new drug testing rules were initiated, three trainers at Laurel Park were suspended for doping violations. What is being done to prevent these situations from reoccurring?

Those were overages for permissible therapeutic medications. Today, we are midway through installing a surveillance system throughout the building and barn area to deter and catch any wrongdoing. Our commitment to our fans and to horsemen is that integrity is paramount.

What will be on your agenda for the upcoming legislative session?

The few legislators I’ve met have been welcoming to our improvements, and I just want to support them. We work with the lobbying firm of Rifkin, Weiner, Livingston, Levitan & Silver, of Annapolis.

What are you doing to attract new and younger fans to the tracks?

That’s part of the reason for the build-out with the sports bar and the gaming room. We did twilight racing on Friday evenings and have also presented a family fun day.

Will we see more night racing or expansion of the season?

No, but in July and August we ran from 3 to 8 p.m. and called it “twilight racing.” That included a band and a buffet with crabs. It was well-received. When the train becomes operational, it might be nice to run a good happy hour during that slot.

There are 109 racing days at Laurel, 40 at Pimlico. Both are open year ’round for simulcasting from around the country, too.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the MJC today?

Basically, bringing the fan base back and growing the business. The tracks have been neglected for some time. As we improve the facilities, I think we’ll step up marketing efforts to attract more fans.

On a given weekend, we look to attract 3,000-4,000 people, aside from the big days. Speaking of which, we’re hoping to attract 15,000 fans for the Maryland Million.