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.

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. ••