Raffetto has his backers

`Firing ... sends a very disturbing message,' a supporter says

Horse racing

November 30, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

Frustration and sadness were two prevailing feelings a day after the news broke about the ousting of Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer Lou Raffetto.

Worry was the other.

Raffetto declined to talk about the circumstances surrounding his departure from the MJC. Others close to the situation, however, including Maryland Racing Commission chairman John Franzone and Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association attorney Alan Foreman, made it clear Raffetto had been fired and had not simply walked away from the job he held for seven years.

"He's been fired," Foreman said. "Usually, that means you've done something wrong, but there is nothing to indicate that here. There's nothing but disgust over this move. Lou was in charge of the one asset Magna had performing well in the country."

Foreman said Raffetto's replacement, former MJC executive Chris Dragone, who introduced himself at Laurel Park yesterday, is in a very tough situation.

"It's not his fault, but Magna is in deep trouble here," Foreman said. "I believe they've lost the confidence of the industry in Maryland. I'm sure in the day-to-day operation, Chris will do all he can to take care of issues that come up.

"But Lou had the respect of the horsemen and that's something Chris will have to establish, and Lou had a respected public face. A respectability and credibility Magna didn't have. He helped make things happen."

Franzone said he believes Laurel Park "can kiss a slots license goodbye," and Foreman said there is now "great skepticism about whether Magna is capable of running a slots operation here should the referendum pass next November. I think the firing of Lou Raffetto sends a very disturbing message."

While Magna Entertainment Corp. has been bleeding money and this year announced that it would take steps to establish sound business practices in an attempt to raise $700 million by the end of 2008 to pay off debt, Raffetto had the Maryland Jockey Club generating a positive cash flow.

Though he was forced to cut the Grade I Pimlico Special, purse money and racing dates to do it, he managed to keep Maryland racing as close to competitive with surrounding states as possible without creating acrimony among the track, breeders and horsemen.

Leaders from all sides of the industry lent their voices to the outrage over Raffetto's firing.

"It's almost like seeing a union boss going to bat for a management person," Raffetto said. "It's truly uplifting for me to see the response, because the hardest part for me about turning the page and moving on is leaving the people and the relationships I've formed here."

Raffetto said his biggest regret is that from Day One, he has had to operate the Maryland racing program with smoke and mirrors.

"I would have liked to have developed a program with real money," he said. "I believe Maryland's racing industry [on a level playing field] would be second to none, and it is something I had hoped we would have had the chance to do."

Raffetto's wife, Fran, still is employed by the MJC as assistant to the racing secretary.

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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