Northeast Times

Parx CEO knows his turf

The new CEO for Green­wood Ra­cing Inc., own­er of Parx casino, Tony Ricci, takes a mo­ment to look at the casino floor after a buisi­ness meet­ing at Parx’s main build­ing. FAYE MUR­MAN/TIMES PHOTO

Tony Ricci, an Ox­ford Circle nat­ive and Fath­er Judge gradu­ate, was named CEO by Green­wood Ra­cing Inc., a po­s­i­tion that in­cludes over­sight of Parx Casino and Ra­cing. Ricci, an 18-year-vet­er­an of the ra­cing in­dustry, has been a ma­jor fig­ure on the loc­al gam­ing scene.

Start­Frag­ment

Tony Ricci grew up in Ox­ford Circle, gradu­ated from Fath­er Judge High School, Class of 1973, and lived at home while at­tend­ing Spring Garden Col­lege. But he nev­er bet the ponies at the old Key­stone Racetrack.

He simply nev­er had the urge.

Years later, Ricci’s youth­ful in­dif­fer­ence to thor­ough­bred ra­cing is both an iron­ic and valu­able as­set in his pro­fes­sion­al life. On Jan. 30, Green­wood Ra­cing Inc. presen­ted Ricci as its new chief ex­ec­ut­ive of­ficer, over­see­ing op­er­a­tions at Parx Casino and Ra­cing, along with the com­pany’s many oth­er gambling-in­dustry as­sets.

Parx, at 2999 Street Road in Ben­s­alem, is the suc­cessor to the former Key­stone Racetrack, which opened in 1974 and later be­came Phil­adelphia Park.

Green­wood also owns partly or in-full New Jer­sey’s At­lantic City Race Course and Free­hold Race­way, along with five Phil­adelphia-area Turf Club bet­ting par­lors and oth­er off-track bet­ting sites on both sides of the Delaware.

Be­cause of his job, Ricci, 56, isn’t al­lowed to gamble at any of the ven­ues. But that’s fine by him.

“I used to go to Liberty Bell with a friend in col­lege, but I nev­er came here,” Ricci told the North­east Times, re­fer­ring to the former har­ness ra­cing ven­ue in Park­wood.

Frank­lin Mills mall now oc­cu­pies the former Liberty Bell prop­erty.

Still, the Hunt­ing­don Val­ley res­id­ent has the be­ne­fit of 18 years of ex­per­i­ence in the ra­cing in­dustry, all as Green­wood’s chief fin­an­cial of­ficer. In that role, he helped own­ers Bob Green and Bill Hog­wood sta­bil­ize a com­pany burdened by an ail­ing ra­cing in­dustry and trans­form it in­to a trail­blaz­ing and suc­cess­ful mar­riage of gam­ing and ra­cing. As CEO, he hopes to lead the growth and prof­it­ab­il­ity of both seg­ments to pre­vi­ously un­seen heights.

“I don’t think it would be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say the gam­ing in­dustry saved the horse in­dustry in Pennsylvania,” Ricci said. “And bey­ond that, [gam­ing] put it in a po­s­i­tion where it im­proved dra­mat­ic­ally.”

Num­bers say a lot about what has happened at the 450-acre racetrack site since slots de­b­uted there in Decem­ber 2006. For the fisc­al year end­ing June 30, 2011, Parx re­por­ted $31.1 mil­lion in rev­en­ue from its 3,526 slot ma­chines, along with $9.5 mil­lion from 180 table games (such as poker and black­jack). It ranks first in the state in both cat­egor­ies.

By com­par­is­on, Sands Casino Re­sort in Beth­le­hem, which opened in 2009, was the second-most prof­it­able in the state with $22.7 mil­lion from 3,022 slots and $8.7 mil­lion from 129 tables in fisc­al 2011.

Fishtown’s Sug­ar­House Casino, which opened in Septem­ber 2010, was 10th statewide in both cat­egor­ies, gen­er­at­ing $15 mil­lion from 1,549 slots and $6.2 mil­lion from 52 tables dur­ing its first 10 months of ex­ist­ence.

“We’ve grown twenty-five per­cent since we first opened, but we’ve seen that growth stall due to more com­pet­i­tion in the mar­ket,” Ricci said.

Mean­while, ra­cing purses have “al­most tripled” since the ad­vent of gam­ing, ac­cord­ing to Ricci, al­low­ing it to at­tract bet­ter com­pet­i­tion and raise its na­tion­al pro­file.

In 2007, the track’s premiere event, the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby for 3-year-olds, reached a $1 mil­lion purse for the first time. In 2010, Green­wood moved the race from its tra­di­tion­al Me­mori­al Day run­ning to late Septem­ber to at­tract a stronger field in the run-up to the Breed­er’s Cup. In 2011, To Hon­or And Serve won the Derby in re­cord time.

The Amer­ic­an Graded Stakes Com­mit­tee in Decem­ber up­graded Parx’ Co­til­lion Han­di­cap for 3-year-old fil­lies to Grade I stakes status. Its purse now also tops $1 mil­lion. Run in early Oc­to­ber, the race is the track’s first Grade I and just one of 112 in the U.S. The stakes com­mit­tee also awar­ded three new Grade III races to Parx in Decem­ber.

“With my­self, Bob as chair­man and Bill as vice chair­man, we know our her­it­age in this busi­ness and our [gam­ing] li­cense is con­nec­ted to ra­cing,” Ricci said.

Ricci, mean­while, was a vir­tu­al new­comer to the ra­cing game when he ar­rived at then-Phil­adelphia Park in 1993.

He at­ten­ded Spring Garden on a bas­ket­ball schol­ar­ship and gradu­ated with an ac­count­ing de­gree. Spring Garden, which was in the city’s Chest­nut Hill sec­tion, closed its doors in the 1990s.

Soon after col­lege, he ac­cep­ted a po­s­i­tion at SKF In­dus­tries, the North Amer­ic­an di­vi­sion of a Swiss ball-bear­ing man­u­fac­turer. In 1984, a grow­ing tech­no­logy firm, Com­modore In­ter­na­tion­al, re­cruited him.

At the time, the West Chester-based com­pany’s Com­modore 64 was the world’s lead­ing home com­puter, out-du­el­ing Steve Jobs’ Apple II and a vari­ety of IBM PC clones with about 40 per­cent of the mar­ket share. It still ranks as the best-selling mod­el of all time, with es­tim­ates ran­ging from 12 mil­lion to 19 mil­lion units sold.

Ricci’s job was to help in­stall fin­an­cial con­trols on a firm that was “grow­ing like crazy.” In 1982, it had sold 200,000 units. The fol­low­ing year it sold 2 mil­lion.

Ricci be­came vice pres­id­ent and cor­por­ate con­trol­ler, then CFO. But the com­pany, burdened by a price war, en­gin­eer­ing di­vi­sion de­fec­tions and oth­er chal­lenges, both ex­tern­al and in­tern­al, found it­self in dire straits by the late 1980s and de­clared bank­ruptcy in 1994.

So Ricci’s 1993 move to Green­wood came at the ideal time for his grow­ing fam­ily, in­clud­ing his wife, Helen, a May­fair nat­ive and St. Hubert’s gradu­ate; son, Mat­thew, a 2000 Judge gradu­ate; and daugh­ter, Maura, a Mount St. Joseph Academy gradu­ate and Vil­lan­ova fresh­man.

It also came at the right time for Green­wood. Green and Hog­wood, two Brit­ish book­makers, had bought the racetrack in 1990 and were di­ver­si­fy­ing their new com­pany’s ra­cing-re­lated busi­ness.

With­in a year of Ricci’s ar­rival, Green­wood in col­lab­or­a­tion with the track’s horse­men re­struc­tured purse sched­ules and days of op­er­a­tion to cut costs. The com­pany partnered with Penn Na­tion­al Race Course near Har­ris­burg to ac­quire Free­hold. That joint ven­ture still ex­ists. Green­wood also leased Garden State Park in Cherry Hill and opened new Turf Club sites.

“Un­for­tu­nately, the ra­cing in­dustry in oth­er jur­is­dic­tions was in de­cline,” Ricci said. “We built a suc­cess­ful busi­ness in this mar­ket, but we were un­der siege.”

Since 1999, purses at Free­hold have de­clined by 65 per­cent, he noted. In 2001, Garden State closed down in the face of poor at­tend­ance and com­pet­i­tion from At­lantic City casi­nos. Iron­ic­ally, gam­ing might have saved the track, but then-Gov. Christine Todd Whit­man ve­toed en­abling le­gis­la­tion in 2000.

Phil­adelphia Park didn’t suf­fer the same fate.

“We were for­tu­nate enough to be in a state where le­gis­lat­ors un­der­stood the chal­lenges fa­cing the ra­cing in­dustry,” Ricci said. “(Gam­ing) ef­fect­ively saved the ra­cing in­dustry. You can see the ef­fect in New Jer­sey where tracks don’t have slots.”

Con­versely, the em­phas­is at Parx is on growth.

“We’re sit­ting in a great loc­a­tion with a lot of (pos­it­ive) demo­graph­ics. We’re eval­u­at­ing a lot of op­tions,” Ricci said.

The main casino is un­der­go­ing a 100,000-square-foot ex­pan­sion with new space for gam­ing and amen­it­ies, such as din­ing or en­ter­tain­ment. Fu­ture de­vel­op­ment may in­clude a park­ing gar­age, hotel, re­tail com­plex or per­form­ing arts ven­ue.

“We’re still early in our life cycle as a busi­ness,” Ricci said. ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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