Chris Dragone knows he is wading into some fiery situations as the new head of the Maryland Jockey Club, but said he is more than willing to take whatever heat necessary to right a rocky ship.
Dragone, a former general manager of Magna Entertainment Corp.-controlled tracks Great Lakes Downs and Portland Meadows, on Nov. 28 was named president and general manager of the MJC, replacing the popular Lou Raffetto, who was fired.
Raffetto’s termination has been widely criticized by Maryland horsemen. And Dragone considers his own hiring bittersweet, having worked under the former president as an MJC executive for part of 2006.
“There are currently hard feelings, but I don’t think there are hard feelings against me,” Dragone said in a Nov. 30 telephone interview. “And I appreciate that. Lou was very popular. So far, it hasn’t become personal, and I hope it doesn’t.”
Dragone, who most recently served as executive director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders Inc., said he hopes to win the trust of horsemen in the same fashion Raffetto did.
“I think the only way to approach it is to do my job--the job that they pay me to do,” he said. “I’ll stay positive, stay focused. I’ll be listening to them. They will be seeing me on a daily basis. They will see me back on the backside. I don’t shy away from tough questions.
“Hopefully over time, I can earn their respect the way Lou did by being honest and doing the right thing.”
Dragone, who worked 12 years in various roles at Meadowlands and Monmouth Park before taking over the GM role at Great Lakes Downs, said the MJC job was pitched to him just a couple of weeks ago.
“It’s not a situation where I decided to take it before a decision was made regarding Lou,” said Dragone, who was a senior vice president and MJC general manager for eight months in 2006. “It’s a tough situation. I have worked for Lou, and I have a lot of respect for him. Lou has put his heart and soul into this place, as we all do when you are a general manager … you get a very personal attachment to the people, the horsemen, the employees, and the facility itself.”
Dragone said his immediate focus will be on the Maryland legislature’s recent approval for a November 2008 referendum to consider slot machines at certain pari-mutuel facilities. He said an MEC team that includes chairman Frank Stronach will take a hard look at the plusses and minuses of the proposal.
“I think within the next week or two, they will come out with a determination if it makes sense for them or not,” Dragone said of MEC’s analysis of the proposed legislation. “Then, we will start planning a strategy from there.
“It’s a complicated piece of legislation. You want to do what is right for horse racing--Frank has held that first and foremost. But you also have to do what is right business-wise. You have to stay in business. You can’t stay in something that is going to have you lose money. I think that is the balance that corporate is going to be using when they look at this.”
MEC recently made the decision to slash the number of slot machines at its Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino in South Florida.
MJC tracks, which include Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, have suffered while competing against racetracks in neighboring states that are supported by slots.
“It’s obviously very difficult to compete right now when you’ve got surrounding states like Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia having slots,” Dragone said. “There is no getting around it. It’s very tough. We are looking at a tough period, even if the referendum passes. I wish we could say we have seen the end of the lean times, but I think we have to deal with reality.”
Despite the challenges, Dragone believes Maryland racing still has a lot to offer.
“Obviously, every day you have the Preakness in the back of your mind because it’s such a big event,” he said of the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. “And we are still running races here year-round. We are going to get the message out that there are still some great opportunities here.”Dragone's late father, Allan, was a former chairman of the New York Racing Association. The Dragone family owns December Hill Farm in New Jersey.