JC / Railbird

100 Days or No Days

A view from Michigan on the news from Massachusetts and Maryland:

Now it is the Track Management’s that are finally coming under fire from the years and decades of rage that’s been building up from taking all this crud. And the Horsemen & Women have finally said ENOUGH.

We may die, but with us SO WILL YOU….

Now you know what they’ve felt like all those years of your threats. For once some are telling you what will be. For they will decide their future, not you.


I haven’t talked to anyone, on either side, in the dispute over the 2011 meet between Suffolk Downs and the NEHBPA who has framed negotiations as such an existential struggle, but there is an undeniable touch of the apocalyptic in the New England horsemen’s bargaining stance. What’s being fought over isn’t just the terms for one summer, it’s the very survival of Massachusetts racing.

When the horsemen charged in a fact-sheet posted to the NEHBPA website last week that Suffolk wasn’t negotiating with the intention of running a live meet this year, they made it clear they believed there was nothing less at stake.

From Suffolk’s perspective, the horsemen have also made it “clear that the HBPA’s position on the 2011 season is 100 days or no days at all,” wrote the track’s COO in a letter to the NEHBPA yesterday, in which he reaffirmed that Suffolk plans to race in 2011. “[W]e have been consistent about our intention to run a live meet in 2011 and still hope to do so.”

Days could be the sticking point. “From a breeding standpoint, we need a long meet,” New England Stallion Station owner Ken Posco told me yesterday. “I’m with the 100 days minimum.” I asked him why a shorter meet wouldn’t work for the local breeding program. “It will in time,” he replied, “if we get legislation for gaming.” Until then, it’s essential to protect racing as it exists.

That’s the horsemen’s position on days, and they want — not unreasonably — average daily purses at a level that will allow people to care for themselves and their horses. In 2010, horsemen raced without a contract; purse cuts last August left many feeling betrayed and vulnerable. A justifiable determination to avoid the same exposure this year suffuses their statements.

The problem is, as the handle and revenue numbers for the past four years released by Suffolk show, that there isn’t much of a market for 100 days of Massachusetts racing. Since 2007, total handle has dropped more than a third.

In my exchanges with NEHBPA lawyer Frank Frisoli, he’s expressed optimism that the recovering economy will keep 2011 numbers consistent with 2010, and been insistent on the horsemen’s demand for an equal simulcasting split, which would fund purses at the level (approximately $95,000 per day) horsemen seek in the proposal the group submitted to Suffolk last week.

But an equal split would mean less revenue for Suffolk, a tough sell to any business, and certainly so to a track that’s lost $40 million in four years. When I asked Frisoli about this, he replied, “Suffolk Downs controls its expenses.”

In abstract, 50-50 sounds fair. In reality, the horsemen are asking the track to cut back or operate at more of a loss this year for their benefit (a proposition that must seem less attractive to management each day simulcasting revenue is lost to blocked signals and nearby simulcasting parlors).

In our conversation, Posco summed up the situation, the issue at the root of the rest: “Without slots, there’ll be no racing or breeding in Massachusetts.”

It always comes back to slots. Without the prospect of expanded gaming, racing would have ended at Suffolk years ago. With it, though, perspectives skew toward an imagined slots-rich future. Instead of looking for ways to make racing better now, for all involved, the focus is on getting through another year, squeezing what there is from dwindling revenues for 100 days, hoping for a jackpot. The existence of Massachusetts racing depends on it.


Thanks for your well-written piece. I have sympathy for both sides. On the one hand, the horsemen are already not faring all that well, on the other, Suffolk is obviously stretched to the limit as a business. The concept of operating at a loss is mind-boggling to me, and I applaud the track and dedicated personnel for somehow keeping things going.

Posted by Sue on February 16, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

What is the OTB situation like in Mass., and New England? Why can’t Suffolk spread its wings a little. There are no tracks up that way anymore, so it feels like they could rule the roost, and yet they are dying? If not slots, why can’t they lobby to get horseplay in bars or clubs or make deals with other New England states? Have all options been exhausted?

Posted by John S. on February 16, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

Dandy synopsis!

Posted by PTP on February 16, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

That racing went after slots as a way to expand gaming rather than sports bars as John S. suggests is just another example of how backwards and idiotic this sport can be.

OTB is legal in Kentucky, the supposed HORSE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD, yet I can’t bet on Thoroughbred racing in Lexington once the Sun goes does (unless I do so via the Internet and then the local horsemen get nothing, which is what they deserve for not demanding local nighttime simulcast).

The most magnificent creatures in the world are bred at the highest level in Central Kentucky, but if those same creatures happen to be running at night you can forget about betting on them.

Posted by EJXD2 on February 16, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

There isn’t a lot of incentive for a casino operator to innovate, but there also hasn’t been a lot of winning moves made in the name of racing by those track owners who profess to also be in for love of the game. New York, with its mire, is one thing, and they still innovate in the realms they can control, but operators elsewhere have consistently shown a lack of ability to develop a market that might be available, and that gets blamed squarely on executives who simply do not execute. With lack of centralized leadership to right the listing ships, these track owners are on the brink of extinction. The racing leaders in Mass. need to come together and ask the government for the right – if they don’t already have it – to expand the reach of their footprint into bars and clubs, etc. They no longer would be seeking to conduct wagering on something that is not already on the books. Find willing and eager and sensible marketplace partners and collectively lobby. A horsemen-ownership stand-off over a carcass is a laughable double suicide. A bold OTB plan launched with a belt cinched tight shows what Maryland calls “peace in the valley” and projects a desire to show how great racing is.

Posted by John S. on February 16, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

Of course I may not know what I’m talking about when it comes to Mass., but it looks good!

Posted by John S. on February 16, 2011 @ 9:33 pm

Why no OTBs?It doesn’t make any sense.

Posted by Fred on February 17, 2011 @ 12:40 am

In Michigan we have NOTHING. No OTBs, VLTs not even the Office of Racing Commissioner anymore since 2009. Governor Granholm dissolved it and then took Horse Racing from Agriculture where it’s been from the start ( 1933 ) and placed us under the Michigan Gaming Control Board. And the only thing that the MGCB has been over is CASINOS period. They could care less about Horse Racing.

Their Director Richard Kalm made statements to the Detroit Free Press here and this is a direct quote: The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians recently purchased land near Pinnacle Race Course in Huron Township in western Wayne County. Gaming facilities there or in Port Huron would compete directly for local customers with Detroit’s three casinos, which count on exclusivity to fuel their business. The Detroit casinos are an important source of revenue for the City of Detroit.

Well the Soo Tribe voted that project down at Pinnacle with good reason. They have their own crooked turmoil going on with-in their tribe. But where is the MGCB directors head. Up the three Detroit Casinos A**** that’s where.

I wrote a blog entitled Racetracks vs. Racinos. It not hard to see which ones are thriving and which are dying.

Michigan legislators continue to live in the dark ages. Blog after Blog with data detailing what further revenue could be brought in with implementing further gaming to the Race Tracks.

They would rather sit and cry broke and be total hypocrites by stating gambling is bad. Really? 24 going on 25 Casinos, 21 Tribunal, 3 Commercial Detroit. A million different ways to play the lottery. Charity Casinos.

All I know is in Mi. Horse Racing was here before anybody ever heard the word Lottery or Casino. We have generated the $$$ for this State since 1933, and now we have been thrown to the side like we don’t exist or matter. Beyond frustrating. And Pinnacle’s owner isn’t as broke as he’s putting on. None of the tracks are. Yet it’s the truly broke ones the Horsemen/Women who funded the meet entirely in 2010. And paid Pinnacle’s Water Bill to boot.

I applaud Maryland & New England’s Horsemen for having the guts to unite and stick together and taking a stand for good, bad or indifference. I only wish the MIHBPA would also finally come together on the same page and do the same. That is their biggest problem, none of them will stick together. And that’s why they will continue to forever run scared.

I say ENOUGH is ENOUGH. We hit rock bottom long ago, we’ve got nothing else to lose. It’s either stand up and fight or die. But I’ll be damned if I’d go down and die without swinging back. To the State and to the Track.

A Thank You to the author of this blog site Jessica Chapel for the Ping Back. Much Appreciated.

Click onto my Horse Racing Tab. You’ll get the full picture.

Posted by Longshot on February 17, 2011 @ 2:19 am

OTBs everywhere are a beautiful vision, John. I don’t know why an off-track culture didn’t develop earlier in Massachusetts — it could be that with so many dog tracks, harness tracks, and thoroughbred tracks, all within a few miles drive, no one saw the need — but I do know why it won’t happen now. The Massachusetts Lottery took in $903 million in 2010. It’s the most profitable lottery per capita in the US, and the powerful state lottery commission is very protective of its revenue. You can play Keno at just about every convenience store and most bars. You can buy scratch-off tickets every 100 feet. There’s no way the Lottery would ever allow racing to compete in those spaces.

Posted by Jessica on February 17, 2011 @ 6:41 am

Ohio passed OTB in the late 1990s. Each of the seven pari-mutuel facilities (three Thoroughbred tracks plus four harness tracks) were on board a quick rollout of parlors throughout the state. Even the rural–more fundamentalist–areas were willing to embrace OTB because nearly all country fairs in Ohio offered pari-mutuel wagering on harness racing. It wasn’t seen as an expansion of gambling from a geography perspective so much as an expansion of opportunity where it already existed.

Then at the last minute some intrepid legislator attached a rider on the bill that added a 3% surcharge on wagers. Nearly everyone backed out and only two OTBs opened and only one of those has survived.

The racing industry in Ohio has spent ungodly sums trying to get slots, but it would be a lot healthier now if it had spent just a fraction of that on getting the OTB law changed and expanding its actual core product.

Posted by EJXD2 on February 17, 2011 @ 8:33 am

And there you have it …
Massive frustration from Longshot because horsemen that are getting socked can’t unite and an entire Ohio racing industry that buckled because of one legislator. More people should take away lessons from what just went down in Egypt — if you can topple an entire entrenched government by taking to the streets in numbers, you can surely put down a puny legislator by marshaling forces and making loud noise every single day until you get what you need to survive. What is it about the makeup of horsemen that they can’t successfully fight for their own interests even when those interests are beneficial to the state?

Posted by John S. on February 17, 2011 @ 10:39 am