- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

About 600 miles from Churchill Downs but less than a mile off of the Capital Beltway, Rosecroft Raceway serves as one of just a handful of places in the Mid-Atlantic that offers live harness racing.

But an aging and distracted clientele, coupled with stiff competition from tracks in neighboring states, is forcing raceway officials to open their minds to other streams of revenue.

Rosecroft chief executive officer Tom Chuckas is spearheading an effort to bring new events to the Fort Washington track, scheduling a night of boxing on May 18 and allowing the facility’s 125 acres to be used for everything from rugby and soccer to a rodeo and concerts.

“We’re trying to create a sense of activity here and bring in some younger people, and use the facility to the best of our ability to maximize those things,” Chuckas said. “One of the things I find is that people go, ‘Oh, Rosecroft. That’s something from the 1940s, with peanuts and sawdust on the floor.’ Granted, the facility is 50 years old. But everybody I get out here has a good time. And I think we are diversifying and trying as many things as we can handle.”

Rosecroft will play host to an array of Kentucky Derby-related promotions today, offering a 10 percent bonus on all winning Derby bets, while also encouraging customers to dress in vintage clothes as part of a “Racing Elegance of Yesteryear” contest. But in the coming weeks it also will branch out with the first of three nights of boxing on May 18, followed the next day by a concert featuring singer-songwriter Donovan Chapman. Rosecroft also plans to hold a rodeo in October, and Chuckas is solidifying agreements with several sports groups including US Lacrosse and the Hoop it Up 3-on-3 basketball tournament about use of the raceway’s grounds.

The Washington Rugby Football Club decided to play its annual Cherry Blossom tournament at Rosecroft in April and is exploring paying as much as $15,000 in rent to make the facility its home field.

“We had been looking for a long time for a place to play where we had a good relationship with the people who owned it,” club president Kevin Tifft said. “We had become sort of nomadic. We approached them from a business standpoint. This has been a real source of pleasure for us.”

Meanwhile, Rosecroft is planning a renovation of the main building’s second floor to make it more accommodating to younger customers.

Rosecroft is owned by the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners’ Association, the non-profit organization representing harness drivers and trainers in Maryland. For that reason, harness racing likely will remain the raceway’s primary focus, but Chuckas acknowledged that Rosecroft can barely break even on racing revenues alone. Fewer than 3,000 customers enter Rosecroft’s gates on days featuring live racing, and those customers are getting older and not being replaced by younger, more affluent racing fans. This year, Rosecroft expects about $110 million in sales. With about 80 percent of that money going back to bettors, the track will receive about $23 million in revenue. After expenses, Rosecroft will report net income of between $300,000 and $400,000. That would be an improvement over last year, when the track lost about $500,000, according to Chuckas.

Other track operators are quick to point out that other states including Pennsylvania and West Virginia have legalized slots at racetracks, placing Maryland facilities at a competitive disadvantage. Chuckas said slots would help, but also blamed the racing industry for failing to market aggressively to young customers as new sports began to emerge.

“Unfortunately, racing in general got way too comfortable,” he said. “They didn’t actively pursue younger people. We missed the boat. Where we could have been like NASCAR or PGA golf pounding it on the media, now we’re behind the eight ball.”

Whether the addition of new events at Rosecroft will help boost revenues at the track is unclear, but Chuckas said any new activity can’t hurt.

“I think that each event that we try to do here has its own group of people that follow it,” he said. “We would much rather have 10 distinct events that each have different people that follow it than being locked into having all our eggs in one basket. And then as we go into next year, we’ll sit back and look at what transpired. As much as I’d like to bat a thousand I know I’m not going bat a thousand. So we will build on the positives and then look at other avenues to proceed down.”

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