STATE HOUSE, BOSTON —Massachusetts is where Maryland was a decade or two ago, Tim Ritvo says, describing how the home state of the Preakness Stakes watched its horse racing industry go "right in the tank" as slot parlors and casinos popped up in surrounding states.

"Maryland was bad," Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, said this week. "I'm not sure it got as bad as this, where it got down to six days (of live racing), but it was bad."

After some dark years, racing began to bounce back in Maryland after voters approved casino-style gaming there about a decade ago, Ritvo said, and now the racing scene is "flourishing" with 167 days of live racing and plans to extend that to 200.

"In 10 years, Maryland will be iconic of what racing is around the country," said Ritvo, whose company is the largest racetrack operator in the country, and owns Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park Racecourse in Maryland. "And Massachusetts has the same opportunity. There is no reason Massachusetts can't be one of the markets."

A native of Revere who won 500 races as a jockey at Suffolk Downs in the 1980s, Ritvo this week toured the site of a potential racetrack in Massachusetts, met with gaming regulators and pitched Beacon Hill leaders on legislation that could make it easier for his company to find its wallet and invest $20 million in the revitalization of horse racing here.

Ritvo traveled to Raynham on Monday to meet with George Carney about partnering to bring live Thoroughbred racing to the old Raynham-Taunton Greyhound Park and said that while the site needs work it is "definitely viable" for a horse track.

"The question is what kind of race track would we have to build there. So we're looking at those options," Ritvo told the News Service at the State House this week. "We're positively interested because Boston is such a great sports town and we believe there is enough pari-mutuel handle to handle a meet for a period of time. What that is, we will continue to study."

Ritvo said Stronach will begin to assemble a financial model to test the economics of the plan and work with architects to produce drawings of what a Raynham horse track might look like. He said Stronach will stay in touch with the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association -- which has been working closely with Stronach and accompanied Ritvo on Monday -- the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, and other stakeholder groups as the plan comes into clearer focus.

"We're looking to add another track to our portfolio but I want to definitely be clear here: we're not looking to blow money, we're not looking to give to charity, we're looking to run a really good business," Ritvo said. "And if it makes business sense after we run all the economics then we'll invest."

That investment, he said, could be in the ballpark of $20 million. But Stronach would need the ability to simulcast its races around the country and accept wagers on races run at other tracks, a key part of the company's business. The track operator is also a supplier of pari-mutuel wagering technology.

"We want simulcasting rights and things that are granted to other facilities around the country that if they run a race meet and invest dollars in jobs and creation, then you need to have the simulcasting laws that are favorable to investment," he said.

The Legislature this week may have complicated things for Stronach, which had hoped to be able to run a meet at Raynham as soon as 2018. Lawmakers approved an extension (H 208) of existing simulcast rights to July 31, 2018, including those held by Suffolk Downs, the former East Boston track that was recently sold and has held just 15 days of racing over the past three years.

Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby, who favors different legislation (S 175) that would give the Gaming Commission the power to assign simulcasting rights to whichever facilities they feel are in the best interests of the industry's development, said this week another one-year extension would limit investment in racing in Massachusetts.

"You need to have the simulcasting laws that are favorable to investment," Ritvo said.

You also need purse money to run a racing meet, and Ritvo said Stronach would want to know that the Race Horse Development Fund, an account fed by casino gambling revenue intended by lawmakers to be used to revitalize racing, will still be around to contribute money to prize purses that can attract top-notch horses and jockeys to Massachusetts.

Lawmakers have eyed the Race Horse Development Fund recently as a potential source of funding for other priorities, like funding the Community Preservation Trust Fund and helping to pay for things at the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association wants to be able to put some of that fund towards their plan for a $150 million "world-class, year-round horse park" that could host 75 racing days per year.

"We know that slot subsidy is out there and that there are probably representatives that would rather take that money and give it to some other avenue -- schools, roads -- and we understand that," Ritvo said. "But what we can bring, if we do this right and it works, is we can bring economic growth to a segment that has been disappearing. We believe there is a market for it here and if we didn't we wouldn't be here."

Despite a resurgence in harness racing tied to the slots parlor in Plainville, horse racing is at an all-time low in Massachusetts. But industry supporters say it's worth saving, arguing a professionally-run track could be profitable and can create jobs while helping to preserve horse farms.

The Thoroughbred horse racing industry has been on the decline in Massachusetts since at least 2001 when there were 1,526 races over 179 racing days in the state. In 2015, Massachusetts hosted 36 races across three racing days -- down from 560 races across 65 racing days in 2014, according to The Jockey Club, which works to promote Thoroughbred horse racing in the United States. In 2016, Massachusetts hosted 63 races on six racing days.

Massachusetts-bred horses, according to the Jockey Club, earned 43.91 percent of their winnings from races in Massachusetts in 2016. In 2012, it was 91.38 percent.

Asked about critics who have long dismissed it as a dying industry, Ritvo said the horse racing business has held steady in the United States at $10 billion a year for the last five years. Stronach, with its $4 billion market share, believes there's room for further growth.

"That's one of the reasons we're here. It's not going to take a lot to make it feel better," he said. "It will be a long time before we get where we really want to get, which is a lot of racing. But you've got to start somewhere."

Ritvo said he expects Stronach would start at 30 days of live racing each year and then add to that calendar if it makes financial sense.

"This is like big ships, when you try to turn them around it takes time," he said. "When you have depleted the horse population so much and it's harder to get people to come back for a period of time, then you know you need to start slow and build up."

--Colin A. Young, State House News Service

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