Lou Raffetto, president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, will leave his post immediately "to pursue other opportunities" and will be replaced by Chris Dragone, a former Jockey Club senior vice president and general manager, the organization announced yesterday.
The news set off loud protest from within the Maryland racing industry, where Raffetto, 57, had earned respect through his skills in working with and for Maryland's horsemen and breeders through difficult times.
"The press release is a total fabrication," Maryland Racing Commission chairman John Franzone said. "Magna basically told him to put his stuff in a cardboard box and head to the door."
Raffetto wished the MJC well in its news release, but he did not return phone messages last night.
"This decision is unequivocally a disaster," Franzone said. "I was on the phone today with [Magna chairman Frank] Stronach, pleading with him not to do this ... but he said, `No. Got to change.' In my mind, they lose all credibility. It's now below zero, and it almost borders on malfeasance."
An official from Magna Entertainment Corp. - which owns the Maryland Jockey Club - could not be reached to respond last night.
However, the move was not a total surprise. On Sept. 24, Magna Entertainment, which held majority interest in the MJC - the entity that runs thoroughbred racing at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course - exercised its option to buy the remainder of the shares from the De Francis family. A month later, Stronach, during a rare appearance at a commission meeting, said like any company taking control of a new business, Magna would be "doing things a little differently."
Stronach acknowledged Raffetto's efforts in yesterday's announcement, but his choice to run the MJC is Dragone, 48, who left the MJC last year to be executive director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders Inc.
Dragone said last night that while it seemed a good change at the time, he came to realize he "loved running racetracks more."
Dragone is the son of former New York Racing Association chairman Allan Dragone and has held track management jobs across the country, including general manager at Great Lakes Downs and Portland Meadows.
"I want to continue what the De Francis family and Lou have built," Dragone said. "Lou Raffetto has created a great team, and I hope to build on it to improve the core product and make it a better entertainment experience for our patrons."
The environment of trust Raffetto built over his seven-year tenure is what the horsemen's groups say they are worried about losing.
"I am sorry to see this change," said Jim Steele, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "I thought Lou was a very knowledgeable person. He wasn't able to get done a lot of things he wanted to do. It's hard to expand advertising and do more of this and that when you're not on a level playing field. The new man's hands will be tied, too, until we get slots."
Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said: "Lou Raffetto deserved a better fate. "He was actually dedicated to racing. I don't know if Magna has anyone in their employ as dedicated as him."