Tom Chuckas is resigning as president of the Maryland Jockey Club after six years in which he helped rebrand the Preakness Stakes as an entertainment event and built more stable relationships between the state's tracks and its horsemen.
As the chief official overseeing the state's two largest tracks at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, Chuckas often received praise for his candor, forward-thinking approach and desire to build consensus on significant issues. He made headlines last year by calling for longer breaks between the Triple Crown races.
The Jockey Club's parent company, the Stronach Group, also announced Wednesday that Salvatore Sinatra will become vice president and general manager of the tracks after a long tenure as director of racing for Parx Racing (formerly Philadelphia Park) in the Philadelphia suburbs.
The change in leadership is part of an overall plan to build audiences for races other than the Preakness, accelerate physical improvements to the tracks and perhaps coordinate racing schedules with neighboring tracks in Delaware and Virginia, said Stronach Group COO Tim Ritvo.
"Maryland is our next big project," Ritvo said, adding the Stronach group would unveil a comprehensive plan for Maryland racing within six months.
Ritvo praised Sinatra's love for racing and experience managing a 230-day race schedule but allowed that the new executive's hiring might have put Chuckas "in a position where he felt a little bit uncomfortable."
He said the Stronach Group was satisfied with Chuckas' performance and hopes to keep him in the company in some capacity. But he added Sinatra could "help develop the every-day racing product and do a better job of trying to get more eyeballs on the product."
"It has been a great personal pleasure working with the entire team at the Maryland Jockey Club," Chuckas said in a statement. "Racing in Maryland is positioning itself for tremendous growth opportunities and I hope for nothing but success in the years to come."
Jockey Club spokesman Mike Gathagan said Chuckas would not be available for further comment. He'll officially leave his job at the end of the month, with Sinatra expected to start work Dec.8.
Chuckas "played a major part in turning around racing in this state," said Bruce Quade, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, the government-appointed panel that regulates the industry.
Quade said he hasn't met Sinatra but was not alarmed by the leadership change, despite his high opinion of Chuckas. "I've met with Tim Ritvo, and they've renewed their commitment to what they're doing in Maryland," Quade said. "So I'm not worried."
The other players in the state industry will have to wait to see what the change means, said Alan Foreman, veteran counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.
"This appears to be an internal Stronach group issue, and we really don't know the reasons," Foreman said. "I've known Sal Sinatra for years. He's a great guy who's had a really good relationship with the horsemen up there. But our concern is that racing in Maryland continues to progress, as it has under Tom."
Foreman has worked with numerous Jockey Club executives over the years and said Chuckas will be missed.
"Tom brought stability," Foreman said. "I have the highest regard for him as a racetrack executive."
In a statement, Stronach group founder Frank Stronach praised Chuckas for "developing a strong foundation to restore Maryland's racing industry."
Under Chuckas' leadership, racing purses in Maryland surged to an all-time high, bolstered by new revenue from casinos. He also helped forge a 10-year working agreement with the state's horsemen after years of contentious negotiations over dwindling race dates.
As part of that agreement, the Jockey Club promised significant renovations at the tracks. And Chuckas' successor will likely face immediate questions about the follow through on those plans, which include extensive new barns for trainers.
Some horsemen have remained skeptical of Stronach because his bold promises to rehabilitate the tracks have yet to come to fruition.
"Those plans have been on the drawing board way too long," Ritvo said. "We're looking right now at ways to push them forward."
Ritvo said the Jockey Club will break ground on new barns at Laurel Park shortly after Thanksgiving.
Foreman said Ritvo has credibility because of his work in updating Gulfstream Park in Florida. "But we've heard all of this before," Foreman said. "We'll see going forward what, if any, impact these changes have."
Chuckas took wide criticism in 2009, when attendance at the Preakness plummeted to a 25-year low, in part because of a new policy prohibiting fans from bringing their own alcohol.
But he was intent on refashioning the Preakness by adding prominent musical acts to the infield and moderating the drink-till-you-drop atmosphere. Attendance in 2014 was a record 123,469, with Grammy winner Lorde performing in the infield before California Chrome won the big race.
Ritvo gave particular praise to Chuckas' work on the Preakness, saying "he's done a terrific job with a facility that's just OK."