Tom Chuckas Jr., president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, has played an instrumental role in orchestrating the reasons behind the widespread optimism currently being felt by stakeholders of Maryland's Thoroughbred industry.
In the not-so-distant past, the future of Maryland racing appeared bleak and possibly headed for collapse. Thanks to a 10-year agreement reached in 2012 between the MJC, the state's horsemen and breeders, and approved by the Maryland Racing Commission, hope has replaced uncertainty.
On the eve of the 139th Preakness Stakes (gr. I) May 17 at Pimlico, with purses on the rise and all segments of Maryland's Thoroughbred industry seemingly on the same page, the state's racing future seems bright. Chuckas has been a pivotal figure in leading the charge.
"I was happiest about working to convince the other parties involved that the old model of being antagonistic didn't work," Chuckas said of unifying the groups. "Any chance of success we had was going to come from all of us working together and being on the same page. It was a cultural change. Philosophically we realized even with our differences that coming together gives us our best chance of success.
"I think the 10-year model we crafted 18 months ago really sets the benchmark to move the industry forward over the next 10 years. It provides stability, credibility and probably most importantly it outlines not only the tracks' roles but the breeders, the horsemen, and the commission. Also, now we know to be successful in the future that all four groups have to work collaboratively for the good of the industry and not solely for each organization's good."
Tapped to run the Maryland Jockey Club by Frank Stronach in 2008, Chuckas gained his initial leadership experience in the harness racing industry. He took on his first general manager role in the early 1990s at Sports Creek Raceway in Michigan. From there he went to Northville Downs, also a harness track in Michigan, before taking the reins at Rosecroft Raceway in Maryland, where he served as president and chief executive officer for 11 years.
Chuckas has made a seamless transition from the Standardbred ranks to Thoroughbred racing. He credits his experience in the harness industry for preparing him to handle the challenges he faces today.
"When you compare harness racing to Thoroughbred racing, obviously harness racing has lower visibility and lower wagering," Chuckas noted. "Over the years when you saw the negative impact on the Thoroughbred industry it was first felt by the harness industry.
"Running Rosecroft, specifically, was difficult," he added. "We had a lot of challenges from a racing perspective and from a business model perspective. It was a struggle. It prepared me well for the challenges I face today."
Chuckas' successful efforts in aligning often splintered interests have not escaped the eyes of other industry leaders.
"Tom is familiar with all sides of the table," said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, "and that's very helpful. He knows what it's like in each seat. It's been a challenge (in Maryland) for a few years. Things are finally coming together, and it's quite an accomplishment. Tom has brought leadership to the table and that's what we needed. He's a great guy, a quiet guy, and he gets things done."
Born and raised in Chicago, Ill., Chuckas' racetrack roots run deep. He was introduced to racing at an early age through his father, who worked in management on the mutuels side of the business at Chicago-area racetracks. Chuckas spent summers and holidays working at Sportsman's Park, Hawthorne Race Course, Arlington Park, Maywood, and Balmoral to help pay for tuition at the Catholic high school he attended.
"I first worked at a racetrack in 1968 when I was 14 years old," Chuckas said. "I needed to pay for tuition. I've done just about every job on the front side and backside of a racetrack.
"In the summers I would work at Arlington during the day and Sportsman's at night. I worked in the ticket room and in the money room. I did about every job in mutuels, and also worked some admissions. Pretty much, I did everything in those days."
After graduating Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., Chuckas, an accounting major, considered law school, but decided against continuing his education and instead opted for a career in racing.
"I had the opportunity to go to law school at Notre Dame, but I made a decision to work for a couple of years to pay off college debts," Chuckas said. "After that I stayed in the racing game and never went back to law school."
A divorced father of four, Chuckas enjoys spending what little free time he finds with his his children who range in age from 4 to 30, and his significant other, Jo Proctor.
When asked what he likes to do away from the racetrack, Chuckas rephrased the question: "What do I like to do when I'm not working 24 hours a day?
"I enjoy golf," he said with a laugh. "I like the arts, plays, specifically. I enjoy social events and spending time with my family. I'm a big sports nut. I still root for the Blackhawks, Bulls, Bears, and Cubs, even though it doesn't go over very well here."
The most trying period of Chuckas' tenure with MJC came in 2009 when harsh criticism was leveled his way over policy changes at Pimlico.
In an effort to make raucous infield festivities on Preakness day a thing of the past, Pimlico management prohibited fans from bringing their own beverages, including alcohol, into the infield that year. As a result, attendance dropped more than 30%, and complaints poured in.
"There were some really tough times in 2009," Chuckas recalled. "I think the reported attendance at that year's Preakness was in the neighborhood of 79,000 people. We took it on the chin. We took it on the chin from our patrons and from the press."
Chuckas stood firm and never lost sight of the Preakness brand. With a multitude of entertainment options, including Infield concerts featuring numerous headlining acts punctuating action on the racetrack in recent years, fans have responded. Attendance is on the rise. A record crowd of 121,309 turned out on Preakness day in 2012, and 117,203 people packed the track last year, accounting for the fourth largest crowd ever to attend the second leg of the Triple Crown. Near-record crowds are anticipated again this year.
"From the perspectives of the Maryland Jockey Club, The Stronach Group, the city and state, rebranding the Preakness Stakes was essential and has been very successful," said Chuckas. "All parties can be very proud. We took a look in 2008 and realized the Wild, Wild, West wasn't what we wanted. We were almost killed for allegedly destroying the Preakness. Now you look where it is the last couple of years and we're going to continue to grow it. It's one of the finest days in racing. We've included music and other opportunities in the infield to attract a younger demographic.
"I'm very proud of the team that worked hard to accomplish this," he added. "I may be the president of the Maryland Jockey Club, but the success we have experienced could not be accomplished without the staff and the people that work here. They are the ones making people smile when they leave here at the end of the day. I get a lot of the credit, but I could never have done it without the help of everyone at the Maryland Jockey Club."
As for his influential role in the industry, Chuckas said, "I never really thought in my wildest dreams that at this stage of my career I would be running the second leg of the Triple Crown and arguably the second-biggest individual race day in the nation. I have to say that I am grateful for The Stronach Group for employing me for this job, and specifically, Frank, for hiring me. I am very happy where I am today."