As director of racing at Parx Racing, Sal Sinatra was instrumental in elevating last year's Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) into a $1 million race that attracted such turf stars as California Chrome and Bayern and some 20,000 fans.
While that event—won by eventual Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Bayern as Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner California Chrome finished off the board—was a major achievement for the track near Philadelphia, Sinatra knows there is very little comparison with what he will see this week at the May 16 Xpressbet.com Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at Pimlico Race Course. The 140th renewal of the middle leg of the Triple Crown will be the first for Sinatra since he took over as vice president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club.
"This is a whole new ballgame from the Pennsylvania Derby," Sinatra said the morning of May 12 as he took a break from overseeing operations at the historic track in Baltimore, Md., "where the 20,000 people is not even half the number of people in this building."
Although the Pennsylvania Derby is not of the magnitude of Saturday's race and the preceding day's stakes-loaded Black-Eyed Susan (gr. I) card, Sinatra has had a taste of the atmosphere surrounding the race, especially when a Derby winner shows up at Pimlico. As racing director at Parx, Sinatra was part of the entourage that accompanied 2004 Derby winner Smarty Jones in his successful Preakness bid the last time the MJC executive attended the Preakness.
"I got a feel for the media, the police escorts, and the requests from major athletes who wanted to come to the barn to see the horse," Sinatra said of the attention.
Sinatra replaced Tom Chuckas as vice president and general manager after expressing his interest in wanting to join The Stronach Group in some capacity if the situation arose.
Like many, Sinatra was initially not a fan of the reconstructed Gulfstream Park, particularly with its unique procedure of horses being saddled in the tunnel, so he stayed away until the winter of 2013-14. While visiting there, Sinatra had an extended 10-day stay due to inclement weather on the East Coast that prevented him from returning home.
"I loved Gulfstream," Sinatra said, noting that he was at the track from dawn to dusk during his extended stay. "I told P. J. (Stronach Group vice president of racing P.J. Campo) that if anything ever happened, to keep me in mind."
As his hiring process evolved, Sinatra ended up being in charge of Stronach's Maryland operations.
As he directs the Pimlico management and staff for the 140th renewal of the Preakness, Sinatra has confidence that track personnel are capable of doing what they do best without much direction from him.
"I basically came in with the mindset I am going to learn (this year), go with the flow, and maybe only make some minor changes," he said. "These people have been doing this long enough and they always get accolades for it."
For Sinatra, being at MJC is a change of pace from his tenure at Parx, which has a casino business that he found often took precedent over the core product of horse racing.
"I had been at Parx 15 or 16 years, and from the time Hal Handel left there was always friction between slots management and racetrack management," Sinatra, who held positions at several other tracks and founded his own company, TSNS, that developed computer software customized to provide various types of information to the racing and gaming industries.
"The whole focus here (in Maryland) is the backstretch and racetrack," Sinatra said, adding that he, The Stronach Group chairman Frank Stronach, and COO Tim Ritvo share the same philosophies in racetrack management.
"It was an easy decision to come here," Sinatra said. "He (Stronach) wants to have management that are horsemen and horse friendly."
Sinatra said one of the best experiences he's had since relocating to Maryland was to attend a stallion show at Heritage Farms that attracted several hundred people. "It's like it used to be. I stepped back 20-30 years."
One of the challenges Sinatra hopes to tackle with success is to increase field sizes that will lead to greater handle and bigger purses. He said he is working on a bonus program that will reward trainers for starting and achieving success over a period of time.
"We're trying to get everybody back in," he said of wanting to encourage horsemen to fill races. "Everybody wants to run in small fields, but nobody wants to bet them. The problem is, you draw up a race that has a 10-horse field, and one trainer sees that he is 20-1 and scratches his horse and another sees that he is 15-1 and scratches. They re-enter in a softer spot, but usually that race is somewhere else. I want to keep them here.
"I'm trying to tell them there are horses that are 20-1 that win. There are horses that are 50-1 that win."
In addition to an improvement project at Pimlico that added more than 150 new televisions throughout the facility and renovated the Sports Palace, MJC has also built one new barn at Laurel Park and is constructing another as part of a reorganization plan that resulted in closing the Bowie Training Center. Sinatra said that previously in the labor-intensive winter months it was no longer cost-effective to keep three facilities open.
As he moves to bring MJC back into the black instead of the consistent annual losses of $3.5-$5 million, Sinatra is also trying to bring younger people and families to the track.
As part of that Laurel is no longer competing with the NFL on Sundays during the fall and MJC plans to offer other types of activities at the track, including fantasy contests, to bring in sports fans just to watch the games rather than racing. He also wants to have a way to attract the many college students within the Baltimore area to the track on days other than Preakness, especially Maryland Million Day.
"I figure if I can fill the building up, they will become fans because it is such a cool sport," he said.