Greg Avioli is not new to thoroughbred racing.
But the former chief executive of the Breeders' Cup race still faces a difficult task in running The Stronach Group's racing business, which took full control of the financially ailing Maryland Jockey Club last week.
The Jockey Club, which owns and operates Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, has suffered through a succession of corporate owners in recent years. And in a sport that has seen attendance and wagering fall, it has struggled to make money even with the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
Maryland thoroughbred racing averted a near collapse last year when Gov. Martin O'Malley brokered a deal that provided a loan funded by slots revenue to the Jockey Club. The General Assembly also passed legislation that would provide slots subsidies to help pay for the track's operations until 2013.
Under a complicated deal that closed last week, the Jockey Club's majority owner, MI Developments, transferred its racing assets to Frank Stronach, who agreed to give up control of the Canadian real estate company in exchange. Casino operator Penn National Gaming, meanwhile, agreed to sell its minority stake in the Jockey Club to Stronach.
Stronach hired Avioli in April to lead the private company's racing and gaming business, which also includes racetracks in Florida and California and AmTote International, an electronic bet-processing company based in Hunt Valley.
Despite challenges and industry infighting, Avioli, 46, remains optimistic about the future of racing in Maryland.
Freed from MI Developments, some of whose shareholders objected to the racing business because it had become a drain on the company's finances, the new company can be more entrepreneurial, Avioli said.
"More importantly, it allows Frank, who is a lover of thoroughbred racing in North America, to be more directly involved," Avioli said. "He truly loves the sport of racing and the reason he's doing this particular deal is because he personally wants to see racing improve and thrive."
Avioli, who is based in Lexington, Ky., spoke recently with The Baltimore Sun about the new company, challenges facing Maryland racing and the industry's future.
How will The Stronach Group operate the racing business differently from previous owners Magna Entertainment [which filed for bankruptcy] and MI Developments?
I believe first and foremost that quality sells. If we're going to turn around this business, we're going to have to do so based on quality. That means in terms of core horse racing and the quality of horses. That means facilities that are worthwhile … and we have to put out a first-quality experience and a top-quality product on the track. …
I generally believe in emphasizing the quality of racing days than number of racing days. I think that's been borne out. I think fans would rather see 45 days of fantastic racing than 90 days of commodity racing. And I'm talking around the country. That's the first part.
The second approach that I'm taking with some degree of success is a collaborative approach. This business is essentially about people and how you get along with people. The horse industry has suffered for a long time from a lack of open communication, a willingness to compromise and understanding of the broader picture.
The good news is right now — with industry handle and wagering and overall economics in decline for five straight years nationwide — I'm seeing a change in that general behavior throughout the industry. People realize that it's time to set aside our differences and find common ground. If we don't, things are not going to get better.
But given the discord in Maryland racing, how will you approach dealings with the horsemen, politicians and other stakeholders?
I have known the leadership of the Maryland [Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association] for more than a decade, and have good relationships throughout that organization. I understand their perspective, what has happened and what hasn't happened over the last decade.
I have worked closely with the Maryland Racing Commission throughout my career on various projects. I have a lot of respect [for the commission]. There are a lot of quality people working there.
With the recently announced agreement that we'll be closing in the next 30 days with Penn National, you'll have less division within the Maryland Jockey Club than you've seen.
The most important piece of this puzzle is the [Maryland] legislature. They understand there are going to be legislative fixes required to get racing back to where it needs to be. That's not unique to Maryland.