Tim Ritvo is a former jockey who rode his first race at Suffolk Downs in Boston. That track, like scores of others around the country, dropped off the racing map, unable to survive.
After he stopped riding, Ritvo moved to South Florida and began training horses at Calder Race Course. Its grandstand was demolished when Calder gave up on thoroughbred racing a few years ago.
So why is Ritvo smiling?
As chief executive officer of the Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream Park, the lifelong horseman oversees one of the few success stories in a centuries-old sport — the “Sport of Kings” — that is struggling to remain relevant elsewhere.
Gulfstream’s market share of the total $10 billion wagered on horse racing last year was a staggering 18 percent, Ritvo said. Put another way, for every $5 that was bet on horses, nearly $1 was pumped into Gulfstream races.
“We’re here for the long haul,” said Belinda Stronach, president of the U.S. racing empire that also owns Santa Anita in California and Maryland’s Laurel Race Course. “We believe in the sport.”
This is a big week for Gulfstream.
On Thursday, the track hosted the annual Eclipse Awards ceremony honoring the best horses, jockeys and trainers in the country. On Saturday, it will host the richest race in the world, the $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational.
Gun Runner, the likely Horse of the Year, heads a field of 12 contenders vying to capture the $7 million winner’s share of the 1 1/8-mile stakes. To put that hefty sum in perspective, Always Dreaming earned a relatively modest $1.6 million for winning the Kentucky Derby in May.
To promote the event, Gulfstream bought airtime to televise the race nationally (NBC Ch. 6, 4:30-6 p.m.) and is charging a premium to attend. Tickets are $75 and up.
“The Pegasus is a big focus for us,” Stronach said of a race that is now in its second year. “And it’s up to us to be able to create these compelling entertainment experiences that people want to tune in, come to the track, have a great time.”
For decades, Gulfstream shared the South Florida racing scene with Hialeah and Calder. It conducted a 60-day race meet in the winter and spring, flip-flopping the prime winter dates with historic Hialeah.
But after the state deregulated dates, allowing tracks to race whenever they chose, Gulfstream emerged as the lone track standing. It now holds a monopoly on thoroughbred racing in South Florida while expanding its market reach nationally by providing year-round racing.
Last year, the track handled more than $1.8 billion in wagers. Combined with Santa Anita and Laurel, the Stronach tracks in 2017 commanded a 40 percent share of the nation’s entire racing handle.
But the picture isn’t so rosy everywhere else.
Tracks are closing. Fewer races are being held. And fewer horses are being bred. Many of the nation’s thoroughbred tracks have been turned into “racinos” — combination tracks and casinos — many of which are owned by casino companies that have little interest in promoting racing, which entails high overhead costs to operate.
And with bettors now able to wager from the comfort of their own homes using online gaming services, many races — even at the top tracks — are now being contested in front of cavernous, empty grandstands.
“You go to Belmont Park [in New York] on a Wednesday or Thursday and the first question you might ask is, ‘Is there racing today?’ because no one’s there,” said Ray Paulick, who covers the racing industry with his “Paulick Report” online site. “That’s a product of the drop in popularity, but also a product of the fact you can now stay home and bet from the comfort of your couch. Horse racing has made it easier not to go to the track.”
Paulick has chronicled the decline in the sport over the past 20 years.
According to statistics provided by The Jockey Club, racing has taken a plunge in popularity over the past several decades. There were 74,000 races held on U.S. tracks in 1989. By 2016, the number had shrunk by nearly half, to 38,000 races. Along those same lines, the number of registered foals plummeted from 40,000 in 1990 to about 20,000 last year.
“I think we’re going to see even fewer tracks surviving,” Paulick said.
But Gulfstream is trying to buck the trend elsewhere. When old Gulfstream was razed about 15 years ago and a new track was built in its place, track leaders significantly reduced the size of the grandstand. There are far fewer places to sit and watch a race. As a result, it doesn’t seem empty, even on days when there are low turnouts.
“If you still had the old Gulfstream Park grandstand, it would feel like a morgue,” Paulick said. “[With the new track], you don’t feel like you’re participating in something that’s dying.”
Stronach said she feels strongly that there’s room for more growth in the sport, locally and nationally.
“We continue to gain strength in an industry that is somewhat shrinking,” Stronach said. “Having said that, I do believe that horse racing is the last great sports legacy platform that has not yet modernized like other sports have.”
Stronach said the company plans to continue investing in the sport and the Gulfstream facility.
“It’s modernizing the facility. It’s investing heavily in technology,” she said. “There’s still a lot of undeveloped property around Gulfstream, and we’re planning growth there.”