Gagliano, Magna's point man, not about to neglect the details

Pimlico, Laurel executive takes promises seriously

Horse Racing

October 05, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

It was a rough meeting for Jim Gagliano.

As the lone top executive of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park at a recent meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission, Gagliano was the bull's eye for stinging criticism from fed-up commissioners. Whether it was construction delays at Laurel Park, security on the backstretch or the anemic state of Maryland racing, commissioners hurled barbs at the youthful, fresh-faced Gagliano.

He responded so graciously, accepting responsibility and promising to do better, that commissioner John Franzone declared Gagliano a refreshing change from the "peripheral hot air we've gotten in the past."

Even Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, a frequent critic of track management, defended Gagliano.

"In Jim Gagliano's defense, he's been handed a monumental problem," Wright said, referring to delays in rebuilding the track surfaces at Laurel and associated problems with stabling horses. "He's doing everything he can."

Gagliano, 39, has been Magna's man in Maryland since July 1. Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canada-based parent company of the Maryland Jockey Club, assigned Gagliano the task of running Pimlico and Laurel Park. He took over daily operations from Joe De Francis, MJC president and CEO, who switched his focus to planning and bigger-picture issues such as legalizing slot machines.

In a wide-ranging interview recently at Pimlico, Gagliano said he's not here to maintain the status quo but "to move this forward, to fulfill the potential of Maryland racing. It's enormous.

"It's got to start with attention to detail. I'm a believer that if you take care of the little things, the bigger things will fall into place."

Gagliano put it this way to the racing commissioners: "For now we're going to try to hit singles."

He said later he was unaware that one criticism of De Francis was that he tried to hit home runs, such as with slots or a new track in Virginia or Texas, rather than to move the business forward incrementally.

Also, legislators in Annapolis have criticized track owners for failing to fulfill the potential of their business before coming to the General Assembly looking for handouts.

Gagliano said that reversing perceptions of legislators as well as patrons begins with "what I call guest services." He said he's instituting management changes that will enable the track staff promptly to address problems, or, in his words, "to take care of the guest."

He said he is working to expand and improve the premier- player program, which rewards the track's biggest bettors with perks and rebates. He said he's close to providing advanced hand-held betting machines to customers and to allowing them to access their accounts with XpressBet, Magna's account- wagering system, from the track.

A sports bar and updated food menus are "in the pipeline," he said.

He said he'd like to have a promotion running all the time. For instance, he said, one recent promotion was "St. Patrick's Day Half," meaning it was six months to St. Patrick's Day, and the track offered specials on Irish beer and food. The Maryland Million on Saturday at Pimlico will feature a brewfest in the infield. That was Gagliano's idea.

Magna's long-range goal continues to be rebuilding Pimlico and Laurel Park, he said, but in the meantime he plans to oversee the continuing installation of more than $1 million in landscaping at Pimlico, construction of a grassy picnic area next spring along the rail at Laurel and annual upgrades to the tracks. He also said he has begun negotiations with officials at Rosecroft Raceway to try to break the impasse that has prevented the construction of off-track-betting facilities around the state.

Gagliano's most important task at the moment is overseeing the construction of new dirt and turf tracks at Laurel. He said he's sure that Magna's crews will produce two of the best racing surfaces in the country.

But leaders of the horsemen's organization are so concerned about construction delays and changes in plans that they have considered hiring an outside expert to evaluate the work. Gagliano said he welcomes the horsemen's involvement.

"It's their racetrack," he said.

"They have that right."

Gagliano has worked for Magna since February 2000 - as president of its off-track-betting division and then as manager of several of the company's smaller tracks. He started in the business in 1983 when he was 17, running the mailroom at Monmouth Park.

He worked his way up until 1991, when he was 26 and named director of operations at the Meadowlands racetrack. Four years later, he also assumed management of Monmouth.

Then, he worked two years at Philadelphia Park as executive vice president and general manager.

His 4 1/2 years at Magna is a lengthy stay, considering the mercurial Frank Stronach, head of the company, and Magna's revolving door at top management. Gagliano said that he understands the history of broken promises in Maryland racing and that he and Magna will be roundly criticized - again - if he promises more than he can deliver or leaves the job prematurely.

"All my planning is I'll be here," Gagliano said. "I'm confident that the highest priority of the company [Magna] is to continue to improve Maryland racing. We're going to get the job done. I want things done right now. I'm driving people crazy with that."

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