The first thing Lou Raffetto said to me on the phone Monday morning was, “Now I'm not going to be able to threaten to throw you out of the window of the press box at Laurel anymore.” If this is goodbye, as Raffetto moves west and takes over as president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, it is a fond farewell.
From outright hostility to grudging mutual respect and friendship, I ran the gamut with Raffetto in his days in charge of the Maryland Jockey Club, until his unceremonious and hugely unpopular firing by Frank Stronach.
Raffetto knows racing as well as anybody, and the West Coast better get used to his straight talk. He is animated, passionate and tough but always has shown a willingness to hear the other side of an argument. It was no small feat that as president and chief operating officer at Laurel and Pimlico he earned the respect of the Maryland horsemen despite promising to toss them out of their stalls if they raced out of town too often.
At Suffolk Downs and in Maryland, he showed he could sail a ship through rough waters. As Thoroughbred Times pointed out, he helped usher in full-scale simulcasting at the Boston track, and I imagine he will push like crazy to get rid of the California prohibition on the simulcast import of full cards from other tracks as well.
For the past several months, Raffetto has worked closely as an advisor to Morris Bailey, who is taking over ownership of Monmouth Park. Bailey wanted to hand Raffetto full control of the operation, so Raffetto, who grew up at Monmouth, must have really liked the offer from the TOC.
From the safety of my telephone, Raffetto and I had a conversation about his future and what he sees in California:
Q: You had an offer to run Monmouth Park from Morris Bailey. What were you weighing, specifically, in making the decision that ultimately led you to the Thoroughbred Owners of California?
Raffetto: It was a very tough decision and a tough choice. I had been working with Morris the past two months, and I found him to be a very honorable person who has the best intentions at heart as it relates to racing. The horsemen in New Jersey should realize how lucky they are to have an operator who really cares about racing.
That being said, looking at what the opportunity was and weighing it against the challenges in California, I just decided that the TOC position was actually a greater personal challenge for me with the potential to actually accomplish more. While I'm a Jersey boy and started my career at Monmouth park while I was in high school. I felt the move to California was the right one at this time.
Q: But you're an East Coast guy moving to the West Coast. Have you ever lived out there?
Raffetto: That's probably the toughest thing. One thing's for sure, I'm not taking up surfing, but I did go looking for my old Beach Boys 8-tracks. The thing that really sold it for me was the opportunity to work with people such as Mike Pegram and the chairman of the TOC, Jack Owens. The chance to go out there and work with people that have the same interest as I is what sold it.
Mike and I have known each other since my days at Suffolk Downs. The thought of taking on this challenge – which is a huge one – with them at my side is one I felt was worth the gamble. The good intentions are there. Anybody who knows the three of us will understand that.
Q: What is your mission with TOC?
Raffetto: I think, number one, we have to listen. The current leadership in the TOC, Jack Owens and Mike Pegram and the rest of the board, recognizes it needs to be more transparent, open and available to answer questions. They'll be the first ones to admit things should have been done differently. But the whole point with the current leadership and the hiring of me is they want to be open to the ideas of others, be good listeners, and work with the other stakeholders to take on the issues on the horizon. There has been a void in leadership in California, and if they don't say that they're kidding themselves.
Q: Tell me some things, specifically.
Raffetto: One of my questions is why California is limiting the amount of incoming simulcasts on a given day? It's archaic. Those are issues we need to address.
Most importantly, the industry was left out when the lottery came along, like every other racetrack in other states. The downward trend for racing started when lotteries hit. In California, there is no chance to get the slots at the racetracks. The Indians and the card clubs have it locked up. The issue on the horizon is that of Internet poker. Representative (Joe Barton, R-Texas) just introduced a bill in Washington to allow the states to legalize intrastate Internet poker. This is an opportunity for racing to get back in the game, so to speak.
The only thing you can wager on online legally is horse racing. If California moves forward and legalizes intrastate Internet poker, horse racing has got to have a seat at that table. If not, that will be game, set, match. Racing has a monopoly of sorts right now. If racing doesn't get a proper piece of that, you will see erosion in the wagering and that will exacerbate the problem in terms of pari-mutuel handle. That is probably the number one priority, to work together to bring consensus in the industry to work in unison to accomplish that goal.
Q: There is a group of horsemen attempting to decertify the TOC. How do you address that and do you apply some of the lessons learned dealing with Maryland horsemen, whose animosity toward management you were able to cool when you ran the Maryland Jockey Club?
Raffetto: In every case, one is going to find a vocal minority. What this group has done is raise the awareness about issues the TOC is responding to. The people in charge now have the best intentions of California racing at heart. I think we need to listen to them and everybody else. I have not been out there, but I am sure they have some legitimate points. That's what (the TOC is) trying to address by hiring someone from the outside like myself, to try to employ my skills, whatever they may be, to improve things. I hope I bring not only a fresh perspective but a little sanity to what's going on. A lot that's been said has been vitriolic and harmful to California racing.
You did not have a happy parting with Frank Stronach when you were fired as head of the Maryland Jockey Club. Now you're going to have to deal with him, or his people, at Santa Anita. How will that work?
Raffetto: My personal feelings aside, Santa Anita is one of the most beautiful racetracks in America. Santa Anita needs to be showcased. I'm a huge supporter of them getting a Breeders' Cup next year. The fact that I worked for Frank in Maryland has nothing to do with this. I like to think I'm much more professional than to have personal feelings play into this.
Q: What qualities should California expect from Lou Raffetto?
Raffetto: I like to think, beyond a fresh perspective, I view myself as a very reasonable individual who has worn many hats around a racetrack, from groom to trainer to racetrack manager, who has always been open to listen to another person's opinion. What's going to be tough for them is getting my personality and my sense of humor. I'm honest and straightforward.
Tomorrow we will run part two of the interview with Lou Raffetto discussing the California takeout increase and the effect the horseplayer boycott has had on handle.
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