Stewardship, Mr. Ritvo: An Open Letter to the Stronach Group’s Tim Ritvo

Chief operating officer of the Stronach Group Tim Ritvo has a crisis on his hands at Santa Anita race track.

Updated: March 16, 2019 • 11:10 AM ET

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Tim Ritvo (right) has several issues he must address at Santa Anita.

Dear Mr. Ritvo,

I was thinking this past week about the complex heterotopia you preside over — Santa Anita Park. That’s right, a heterotopia; what philosopher Michael Foucault described as a place that is one thing and another, all at the same time.

That’s what you preside over. Yes, the Stronach Group employs you, but you’re also a steward of the “Great Race Place.” You preside over a geographical location on a map, one that garners reverence and respect as a cultural icon. The lore and history of such a place that is astride a picturesque landscape.

However, recent events, the death of some 22 horses from December 26 on, continues to embroil you and your staff in a firestorm concerning equine health and safety that jeopardized its existence — a dystopia. I don’t have to tell you that enthusiasts of this sport are more than just a little concerned.

Like the horses we support so passionately, we too are part of a dwindling breed. Racing risks becoming something of a boutique — when uttered, that word makes me cringe. In other words, only relevant once or twice a year, more of a club sport, God forbid. Think American-style polo.

There’s much to celebrate in horse racing’s history. The track has always been a social-leveling experience, one that has brought people together from all walks of life. These heterotopias are places you can literally feel on race day. Cultural electricity sears currents of people together, as they ready themselves for the call to the post.

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As a former jockey, trainer and owner who has vertically done it all, you know that racing is one of our oldest and most controversial national sports. At times, it ruled by capturing the public’s attention and endearing them to a set of personalities that included both human and animal.

However, we must also acknowledge that at its most elemental level, it has always been about money — the business of horse racing. The claiming circuit, sales ring and breeding operations are integral to its survival. For the betting public, wagering is so ingrained in the psyche of those dreamers that see riches and feel the thrill of cashing a ticket. Each of these aspects has its light and dark.

I use the theoretical construct of the heterotopia, because it describes spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye.

That’s Santa Anita.

Your track and the investors that stand behind it, the industry that rents space at it and the fans who flock to the pools would not exist without it. Your oval is both a dreamscape with that beautiful mountain range and a battlefield at the same time. And as we know, on battlefields, there are causalities.

The year dawned for you with much promise. I read a number of pieces that first week that showed your vision and the direction you believe Santa Anita should move in. I heard your words ring off the Sandia Mountains. New turf courses and training tracks? Barn areas and stables galore? It sounded like the rebuilding of another Gulfstream Park West.

I’m not against those ideas you put forth, especially concerning the expansion of turf racing. However, I thought the most interesting quote wasn’t about barn expansions or sod, but another prophetic statement you made.

That being when you said via BloodHorse, "For racing to continue on, this has to happen. If this doesn't happen, we're in trouble."

I think you were exactly right; though, not about what you were speaking. Rather, when your statement is applied to the health and safety of horses, then you have something.

Mr. Ritvo, somewhere along the way, between that wealth of experience you gained at Stronach Monopoly-esque locations like Suffolk Downs, Gulfstream Park and Laurel Park, I think you lost sight of something very important — the power of the track heterotopia. To put it another way, one track size does not fit all.

These past weeks, we were reminded of the balance that can tip this precarious sport in one direction, sending it into a spiral. Every day, the track is a place that is part beauty and elegance, and part sweat and blood.

I don’t know what it was that you learned these past months, but I surmise what we all witnessed was fragility and that a reactive-based strategy isn’t the way to proceed. Certainly, making your plans and thinking about the future is important. Yet, what kind of future will it be?

Consider this: heterotopias such as yours can be what you make of it. Be a steward instead of solely an entrepreneur.

Health and safety should be first, and banning Lasix on the day of a race at California tracks is a beginning. It should be of primary concern, ahead of barns, stalls and plans for venues that are meant to entice and enthrall.

After all, it’s the horses that people come to see. If that’s not good enough, maybe the survival of this sport is nothing more than a canard. For all of our sakes, I hope that’s not true. Otherwise, I agree — we’re all in trouble.


A Concerned Turf Writer