Even though he grew up in Monroe Township, N.J., a few furlongs from Freehold Raceway, Sal Sinatra never got into the trotters and the pacers.
Freehold, the oldest racetrack in the United States and chock full of harness racing history, held seminars to teach the uninitiated about modern day chariot racing, and Sinatra would go with his friends.
"But I never fell in love with harness racing like I did with the thoroughbreds," said Sinatra, president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club since December 2014. "I enjoy the races. I have no problem going and playing, but it's just not my first love."
But during Preakness week, MJC's parent, The Stronach Group, announced a deal to buy one of the two harness tracks in Maryland, Rosecroft Raceway, from Penn National Gaming Inc. And when the deal closes, Sinatra will be in charge of the Fort Washington, Md., oval in addition to Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park.
The purchase price, Sinatra said, was about the same as the $10.25 million Penn National paid for the track when it outbid Orioles owner Peter Angelos in a 2011 auction.
Harness racing in Maryland -- and across North America -- has seen better times. Ocean Downs, in Berlin, Md., runs races four days a week from June through Labor Day. It is also the site of one of the state's five casinos.
The state's third harness track, Freestate Raceway, closed in 1990. There is a CarMax dealership on the site, which sits on Route 1 in Laurel, Md.
According to The Daily Racing Form, there are 56 tracks that conduct harness racing in the U.S. and Canada and 93 that conduct thoroughbred racing.
"Harness racing is a sport that has really taken it on the chin, and I don't know why," Sinatra said. "From an expenses standpoint, it's much cheaper running a harness track than running a thoroughbred track. You don't have the barn area -- you don't have all the expenses we do with thoroughbreds, stabling -- that kind of stuff. It's all ship in.
"Really it's just putting on a show and marketing it and making sure the integrity is OK. I'm sure there's some interest in the state for standardbreds.
"I think the sport's similar to thoroughbreds. The foal crop is down. There's probably too much racing, and I don't think their purses are big enough to support the expense of the horses."
Rosecroft, which opened in 1949, has 54 racing dates in 2016, split evenly between its spring meet (March 8-June 11) and its fall/winter meet (Sept. 13-Dec. 15). By contrast, the thoroughbreds run for 129 days at Laurel and 28 days at Pimlico.
Rosecroft also serves as a simulcast site seven days a week, with bettors able to place wagers on out-of-town races from early afternoon to as late as 9:30 p.m. on some nights.
Sinatra said the average handle at Rosecroft was between $17,000 and $19,000 a night, and that he thinks he can increase that by 30 to 50 percent.
"They're doing such a small business, any gains would be noticed," he said. "That's $7,000 to $10,000 a day, that's not a lot. That could be one or two bettors."
Sinatra said that even at that level, Rosecroft is profitable.
"But we thought we could do even better if we did some of the things we did at Laurel, some of the customer clean-up," he said. "Some TVs, maybe change the food. Once we get into the racing part of it, I might adjust the schedule over time with the horsemen.
"But I'm going to dive in and live through this second meet that they have in September. But really the key is to try and grow the business and to market it."
But even if Sinatra can't grow the live handle, he said Rosecroft was a good investment for the MJC because it expands its presence in the state as well as opens up more off-track betting opportunities.
And he said he's not worried about the $1.3 billion MGM National Harbor casino, less than three miles away as the crow flies, which is scheduled to open late this year.
There are OTB locations at the Horseshoe Casino in downtown Baltimore and at the Timonium Fairgrounds, both not far from Pimlico.
"I'm doing OK with all three," Sinatra said. "I'm kind of looking at [National Harbor] the same way. You have the casino crowd over at the MGM. If I can put an OTB in there, I will still. Because I find that at the Horseshoe OTB, I think you have a lot of novice fans betting, taking a break from the slot machines. Not really your hardcore gamblers. Your hardcore sport lovers are still going to go to the racetrack.
"So if I can offer them a decent dining menu with live racing and try to give them a little better experience, especially with the boxing and the other things they have going on there, I think I can get a crowd there. I think it will be complementary. I think the racetrack crowd is a little different than the casino crowd."
And Sinatra said he's optimistic the MJC can make Rosecroft more successful.
"I think we can do OK," he said. "The expenses aren't great, so I don't think the overhead is that bad. So if I can just grow the business a little bit and get some momentum, I think we can do something."
Issue 222: June 2016