Tom Chuckas is the president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park. We spoke with him on May 8 as his organization was in the midst of final preparations for tis biggest event, Preakness weekend.
QUESTION: We’re about a week out from your biggest event. How is everything coming together?
TOM CHUCKAS: Things are coming together quite well. We were delayed a little bit with the obvious weather — the rain and so on — but fortunately at that point we were a week or so ahead, 10 days ahead, so we’re still ahead. As far as the facility, 80 percent of the work, 90 percent of the work’s been done. You can see all the tents are up, all the sky suites and all the structures are in place. Now it’s fine tuning with that.
As far as ticket sales and so on go, we’re up about 15 percent right now, which is trending positively.
Q. Fifteen percent ahead is a pretty big jump. To what do you attribute that?
CHUCKAS: I think that the evolution of the brand has finally taken place. If you go back to 2008, 2009 we made dramatic changes to the infield. Well, those changes not only altered the infield demographic and what went on out there, it changed everything moving out. You got people in the corporate village that now would come and be associated with the brand because the brand has been improved. You have sponsors that at that time would not be involved with us because of the lunacy that went on in the infield, so cleaning that up had an effect through all parts of the property. Sponsorships, hospitality, corporate, visitors, VIPs, and so on, and truth be told, most of the press the last couple of years has been fantastic — we’ve done a good show.
All of that — the branding, the work my staff does here to put on a first class show — I think attracts the people.
Q. How do you see the Preakness as being different from the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont?
CHUCKAS: Truthfully, this is the one Triple Crown event that’s really a national reach but a very local flavor. And it’s very much of a party, enjoy yourself type of atmosphere, and people relish that.
Q. Given the crowd sizes in recent years — more than 117,000 last year — are there issues in terms of capacity?
CHUCKAS: (laughing) When I was first here, the police commissioner at that time told me, ‘The philosophy is, there’s always room in the infield as long as you can see green grass.’
One of the issues with Preakness day based on the footprint is there is a cap on what you can get in here between the premium seating, the buildings, the sky suites, the village, the turfside terrace, and the infield. And that’s one of the reasons — obviously we continue to push Preakness – but we work hard on Black Eyed Susan day.
Q. You’ve added musical acts plus other things to Black-Eyed Susan day. How is that working?
CHUCKAS: Three or four years ago our Black-Eyed Susan attendance was in the low teens, 12 to 15,000, and we’ve made a concerted effort to grow that because we think there are opportunities on Friday. Last year, I think we were a little short of 40,000. I’m hopeful we’ll be at 45-50,000 this year…
Friday has become — Black-Eyed Susan day has become the “ultimate girls day out,” it’s women’s empowerment. We firmly believe that there’s significant value and significance with attracting the women. And we’ve crafted the day like that. We’ve got the womens’ BWCC (Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce) Breakfast in the morning, Mariel Hemingway is the guest speaker. You’ve got the Zumba partyfest with LifeBridge going on. You have the fashion show. You have excellent racing. And then at night we have three concerts…
We’ve really focused on Friday in conjunction with Saturday, and I think it’s a pretty special two-day event.
Q. Is the fan demographic changing as a result?
CHUCKAS: We have much more corporate participation. We have much more sponsor participation. And truthfully in the infield the demographic has, agewise, has gone up. I would tell you today that the demographic age in the infield is much more 24-25, where I think years ago, it skewed 18,19,20. And there’s a couple of reasons for that. While I appreciate 18, 19, 20 year-olds, when you get into your mid-20s, you have a different view on life, you have some disposable income, you’re there for a whole different reason.
And that’s one of the reasons — knock on wood — we’ve been very fortunate over the last couple years with minimal trouble. The police have been very happy, the fire, the EMTs, the medical services, and the city’s been very happy. I think, truth be told, both Saturday and Friday have become something that the Maryland Jockey Club, the Stronach Group, the racing industry, specifically the city and the state can be very proud of.
Q. Some in racing criticize MJC’s efforts — like adding all the concerts and Zumba — as pulling attention away from the racing and bringing in a lot of people who don’t really help the handle. How do you respond to that?
CHUCKAS: My response is that the Preakness and racing for the Maryland Jockey Club is our core business. It’s something that we work on year-round. We — the Stronach Group, our parent company, is committed to racing. The other things that we do here for Preakness weekend — whether it’s the music, whether it’s the Mug Club, whether it’s the flyovers — whatever we do is to expand and provide more opportunities for our guests. But horse racing is the core here, and it will and it always has been. The way I look at this, if I can get someone young, in their 20s, to come out because of the music, I’ve got a shot that hopefully they’ll enjoy the racing and come back. It’s difficult to get someone out here that knows nothing about racing. But if I can use any of these other amenities that we have to bring them out — and we’ve seen over the last couple years we have gotten, albeit a small bounce, from some of the people that show up either on Friday or Saturday where they’ll come back during the year because they’ve had a great time. But racing’s our core business.
Q. Speaking of your core business, you’ve added a new wager this year. Tell us about that.
CHUCKAS: We’ve added a Pick 3 wager. It kicks off on Friday with the Pimlico Special. It rolls into the Dixie on Saturday and then concludes with the Preakness. It features three of our better races. Actually, the goal was to do a Pick Four… it was the Black-Eyed Susan to the Pimlico Special to the Dixie to the Preakness. I think that would be a pretty amazing bet. Unfortunately we had some technical issues getting that off the ground. So we’re going to go with the Pick 3 this year and work on the Pick 4 for next year.
Q. Last thoughts for racing fans and other Preakness customers?
CHUCKAS: I tell people every year, do some pre-planning… Check your route here because some roads are closed, some are heavily trafficked. Parking at the [Rogers Ave.] Metro [and taking the shuttle to Pimlico] is great. The other issue is know what you can and can’t bring in – it’s up on our website, it’s in all our literature.
Come, have a great time, be respectful of everybody else, but I think you’re in for a great weekend of racing. I think the races are going to be pretty good, and we have just about every amenity known to mankind, from music to the Mug Club, to Clydesdales, to Peruvian Paso horses that’ll parade on the racetrack — Peru’s the international pavilion sponsor. I just think it’s a great day, and I think you should come out and join us.