Raffetto has big plans for Pimlico

MJC official tracking `Special' candidates

new wager debuts

Horse Racing

March 28, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Lou Raffetto Jr. watched intently on TV as Jerry Bailey rode Captain Steve to victory Saturday in the Dubai World Cup.

"Jerry, leave a little in the tank, will you?" said Raffetto, sitting in his office at Laurel Park.

As chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, Raffetto was looking ahead to the 2 1/2 -month Pimlico spring meet, beginning today at the historic track in Baltimore. Post time is 1:05 p.m.

Raffetto had already talked to Mike Pegram, owner of Captain Steve, about running the horse in the Pimlico Special. The Special is May 12, one week before the Preakness. The Special for older horses and the Preakness for 3-year-olds highlight the state's signature racing meet.

As soon as Captain Steve crossed the finish line of the $6 million race, Raffetto visualized a Pimlico Special featuring Captain Steve, winner of the richest race in the world, and Tiznow, reigning Horse of the Year in North America.

"It's a long shot," said Raffetto, who has worked for the Maryland Jockey Club since the first of the year. "But we'll work it."

Few doubt that he will. As an executive at Suffolk Downs near Boston, Raffetto earned the nickname "Relentless Lou" for hustling horses for Suffolk's signature race, the Massachusetts Handicap. Its modest purses did not keep Raffetto from securing Cigar and Skip Away -- not merely for one MassCap each, but for two.

Now, in preparing for his first season at Pimlico, Raffetto has set his sights not only on the Special but also on changes that he hopes will reinvigorate a racing product many see as stagnant. For starters, he has added a wager that he hopes will garner national attention.

The Pimlico Pick 4, requiring bettors to select winners of the fourth through seventh races, will be offered daily with a drastically reduced takeout.

Maryland law stipulates that takeout can be no more than 25.75 percent of each dollar of a four-horse bet. The money is withheld for distribution to the track, state, breeders and horsemen. Takeout for the Pick 4 will be 14 percent. That means more money will be returned to winning bettors.

In addition, Pimlico will guarantee a Pick 4 payout of $25,000 for the first five days of the meet, regardless of how much money the wager attracts. Even if, say, only $20,000 is bet into the pool, the track will make up the shortfall.

"We're trying to get people around the country to focus on our races," Raffetto said. "If they focus on these four races, maybe they'll begin focusing on our entire card."

Raffetto acknowledged that the takeout increases instituted last summer on Maryland races could have discouraged some gamblers from wagering on those races.

"This will test the theory of low takeout," Raffetto said of the Pick 4. "This is just an outstanding value bet."

Raffetto has also eliminated the rolling Pick 3's and cut back the number of superfectas offered. He especially wanted to reduce the exotic wagers available on the first two races.

"I think this will help us keep people in action longer," Raffetto said.

He has also worked with racing officials on ways of eliminating the persistent problem of too few horses in a given race. The racing department on most days has begun accepting entries two days before a race as opposed to as many as five days in the past. The shorter entry time should reduce the number of late scratches, Raffetto said.

Also, racing officials have rescheduled some stakes races that conflicted with similar races in the region. Pimlico will run 38 stakes worth nearly $5 million. The $1 million Preakness, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, is the richest. It is May 19.

Finally, the Maryland Jockey Club and its off-track betting sites will be open Tuesdays for simulcasting. Tuesdays are usually dark days. That means patrons can bet on horse racing every day through June 9, the close of racing at Pimlico -- every day except one. No betting will take place April 15, Easter Sunday.

Despite these changes, Pimlico still suffers from its reputation as an aging track falling further into disrepair. In an attempt to counter that, workers have torn down one dilapidated barn near the Preakness barn and are refurbishing four others.

They will dress up the Preakness barn with awnings. The chain-link fence with its barbed-wire topping will be replaced with more attractive fencing and plantings, Raffetto said.

"We need to send a positive message out to the people who come in for the Preakness that the Maryland Jockey Club is making steps in the right direction as it relates to the backstretch," Raffetto said.

Still, plans for building a new Preakness barn, simulcast centers and outdoor paddock remain on the drawing board. A complex plan adopted last year for financing track improvements has not been realized.

It allowed an increase in the takeout as a means of financing the sale of bonds. In turn, proceeds from selling the bonds would pay for extensive renovations.

Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, said that "preliminary mechanics" of offering the bonds for sale have still not been completed.

"We're waiting and hoping the bonds get sold," he said.

Pimlico spring meet

When: Today through June 9.

Where: Off Northern Parkway west of Jones Falls Expressway.

Racing schedule: Wednesday through Sunday.

Post time: 1:05 p.m.

Simulcast schedule: Every day.

Exception: Closed April 15, Easter Sunday.

Highlights: April 21, Maryland Spring Challenge Day; May 12, $750,000 Pimlico Special; May 19, $1 million Preakness Stakes.

Today: Free admission and Pimlico program, bargain concessions.

Information: 410-542-9400, www.marylandracing.com or www.pimlico.com.

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