Sidelines with John Clay

Pimlico chief says horse racing must avoid going the way of dog racing

This is not a particularly happy weekend for horse racing. There was another equine death at Santa Anita, as well as a horse euthanized at Pimlico, on Friday. Add that to a diminished Preakness, as well as more infrastructure problems at Pimlico Race Course.

With that as a backdrop, The Stronach Group Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo met with the media in the Pimlico press box on Saturday before the running of the 144th Preakness Stakes.

As it stands now, TSG has committed to running the Preakness at Pimlico one more year (2020) before moving it up the road to Laurel Park. The city of Baltimore has filed a lawsuit in hopes of blocking the proposed move.

“We’re focused on today and we continue to try and work with the city and the state on options to have an experience that the people deserve of a great race like this,” Ritvo said. “It makes it a little bit harder with the pressing lawsuit from the city that we think has no merit. But we have to wait until that’s either played out or dropped before we can really start negotiating to see what the bigger picture looks like.”

The Stronach Group has asked for the suit to be dismissed. Not acting on that request would mean the status quo and “I don’t think anybody wants that,” Ritvo said.

There were water pressure problems Saturday at Pimlico, which has been deteriorating for quite some time. A section of more than 6,000 seats was condemned and taken out of use for Saturday. Ritvo insisted the facility is safe but hedged if it was safe enough for the Preakness to return in 2020.

“It gets tougher every year to give the experience the customers deserve for an event like this,” he said. “A pipe broke about two days before the race out front. We had one break two years ago. We go in and repair it and I guess what they’re telling me, what the engineers are telling us, it takes so much time for the pressure to build up.”

Meanwhile, a gelding broke down and was euthanized during training at Santa Anita on Friday. It was the first equine death at the track since March 31, but the 24th such death since Dec. 26 at the Southern California venue. Meanwhile, the filly Congrats Gal collapsed and died from an apparent heart attack just after crossing the finish line at Pimlico on Friday. The Stronach Group owns both Santa Anita and Pimlico.

“We’re looking at ourselves all the time for what we can do to improve and what the sport can do to improve,” Ritvo said. “Unfortunately, percentage-wise, the numbers (the last few weeks) at Santa Anita were really good until yesterday. It’s an unfortunate incident we continue to look and study to see what we can do better all the time.”

TSG has announced it wants to implement a zero-tolerance ban on race day medications at its California tracks, Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields. Ritvo was asked if that ban would be spread to the company’s tracks in Florida (Gulfstream Park) and Maryland (Pimlico and Laurel).

“Yes, that’s the plan to work with the industry stakeholders and try and rule out all of those to continue to improve the sport, not in just one jurisdiction but all jurisdictions,” Ritvo said.

The proposed new rules have encountered significant pushback from several sides, including horsemen and owners.

“We’ll continue to work with them and make them realize how much of an important issue it is and what we faced in California,” Ritvo said. “Maybe other regions didn’t feel it the same as what we felt but we were really devastated and close to watching racing go away in those jurisdictions. Legislatively there would have been an uproar and if they got a constitutional amendment we would have been in trouble like dog racing in Florida.”

Last November, Florida voted overwhelmingly to ban greyhound racing by the end of 2020. Needing 60 percent for the amendment to the Florida constitution to pass, the ban received 69 percent of the vote.

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