Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Fond of Sarah and James Vail heading to the winner's circle. #SuffolkDownsDubai Sky in the paddock before the first race at #Saratoga on Saturday. Was really looking forward to seeing what Twirling Candy's little brother would do in his debut.The Sanford field entering the stretch. Mr. Z is caught in traffic ...Be Bullish heading back to the barn after finishing second in the fifth at #Saratoga on Saturday. Such a fan of this game 9YO gelding, who's on the verge of reaching $1 million in earnings.Waiting for the bell.Macho's barn. #BC13Wise Dan finds the Santa Anita grass to his liking. #BC13 #americasbestracing

Bleak State

How’s this for a depressing flashback? While looking for something else in the Railbird archive, I came across this April 2005 post about Suffolk Downs, “It’s Dying,” written during an especially pessimistic spring:

… expanded gaming won’t solve New England’s long-term racing woes … Thoroughbred racing will leave New England. It’s inevitable.

Yikes. There’s no satisfaction in being proven right.

Although, I haven’t been, not quite yet. Live racing ends at Suffolk Downs on October 4, and simulcasting at the track will cease sometime in December, but the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is “trying to keep the door open” to Thoroughbred racing, approving a more flexible application process for 2015 on Thursday. Commission chair Stephen Crosby sees possibility:

“There’s the Brockton Fair, there’s the Northampton Fair, there’s fairgrounds all over the place, where there are tracks that can accommodate a thoroughbred race. So that’s one of the issues. And plus, you can create a new thoroughbred track. So there are plenty of options out there. How good, which is the better, I don’t have any idea but there are options out there.”

Sure, options. And any proposals submitted for a meet next year are sure to be creative and take into consideration the realities of the current game. After all, as racing director Jennifer Durenberger told the Commission yesterday, horse racing is “a nimble, flexible, and adaptive industry.” (Stop laughing.) One possible option for next year is a meet run by the New England HBPA, which used a letter to the Commission retroactively approving a 65 day meet this year to press its ultimate claim for a “reasonable” 125 days (PDF, page 103).

Sincere Interest

Caught between state law and desperate horsemen, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission agreed on Thursday to “finesse around the regulatory process,” as commissioner Bruce Stebbins put it, and accept “placeholder” applications for a possible 2015 Thoroughbred race meet, so long as “a sincere description of interest” was submitted by the state-mandated deadline of October 1.

“Give us a concept plan, get it into us by the 1st,” said commissioner James McHugh, “and we’ll figure out what to do with it.”

The New England HBPA, which has proposed leasing Suffolk Downs for next year, is expected to submit an application after its officers’ election concludes this week. Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle expressed some skepticism of the group’s plan in a conversation with WBUR’s Jack Lepiarz:

The current operating structure is that they’re losing $10 million a year … you need to erase a $10 million dollar hole and somehow create a $2 million profit. He said to me: “I see no credible way that that can happen right now.”

In 2002, all-sources handle at Suffolk Downs reached $303 million. In 2000, on-track live racing handle totaled $27.6 million. It’s been decline since.

A Runyonesque Farewell

Bill Littlefield:

Some citizens with so many potatoes it does not occur to them at any time to multiply them at Sufferin’ Downs say the race track is no place for a casino, and they are correct on this proposition, and also a blind pig sometimes finds an acorn. I always say ringing bells and other noise such as weeping men losing their homes and families is irritating no little and quite some to citizens whose noses are in the racing form. They are about the difficult business of finding a horse that will not fall down or stop to eat or otherwise occupy itself with business other than running six furlongs or maybe more, and they do not need to be told that Wayne Newton’s show begins …

Last Saturday

It’s official, the last day of live racing at Suffolk Downs — “very likely … the final racing day of the 79-year-old track’s history” — will be Saturday, October 4, instead of Monday, September 29. Come, say goodbye. (You probably won’t get another chance, Shirley Leung.) It’s very likely, and probably, the last day ever, even though the Suffolk horsemen, through the New England HBPA, have raised the prospect of leasing the track and running next year. Let’s call that a longshot, but an interesting one — and obviously, a reaction to the specter of the defunct Brockton Fair track being awarded Thoroughbred dates.

Unsurprisingly, Penn National has ruled out Plainridge as a possible site for a Thoroughbred meet, reports State House News Service (sub. only):

“Our focus is on harness racing, and we are looking forward to a successful season,” Eric Schippers, senior vice president for public affairs at Penn National, said in a statement to the News Service. “Thoroughbred racing would require a one mile track and due to site constraints and wetlands issues, we would not be able to construct one at Plainridge.”

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission holds its first open meeting since granting the Boston-area casino license to Wynn last Tuesday on Thursday: Horse racing is item #4 on the agenda (PDF). Expect a crowd.

Fond of Sarah and jockey James Vail head toward the Suffolk Downs winner's circle

Fond of Sarah draws away to a 7 1/2 length win
Top: Fond of Sarah and James Vail head towards the Suffolk Downs winner’s circle. Bottom: Fond of Sarah draws away from the field.

In the seventh at Suffolk Downs last Saturday, Yasou Stable homebred Fond of Sarah made an impressive debut, winning the 5 1/2 furlong maiden special for 2-year-olds by 7 1/2 lengths in 1:05.45 time — and that was after jockey James Vail wrapped her up in the final sixteenth. Blood-Horse has the replay.

Will Take Retirement

The older horse division takes another hit with the loss of Will Take Charge, retired to Three Chimneys after suffering a minor suspensory injury. Less than six weeks to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and last year’s winner, Mucho Macho Man, is out, along with Game on Dude and Palace Malice. (So, three of the top four finishers in this year’s Santa Anita Handicap are done racing, and New York’s best older Classic hope is Whitney winner Moreno.) For the first time since Raven’s Pass in 2008, a 3-year-old could win the Classic — at least eight are in contention, including unbeaten Pacific Classic winner Shared Belief. His stock, already high, gained following California Chrome’s dismal return in the Pennsylvania Derby, won by Bayern, aka “little Dude.” The dual classic winner will train up to the Breeders’ Cup, and trainer Art Sherman is looking toward a happier result: “We’ll be a lot better price,” he said.

– – – – – 

Be Bullish, making his 83rd career start and dropping from $40K to $16K, finished second to Make a Fortune in the third race at Belmont on Sunday, bringing his earnings up to $4,000 shy of $1 million. Bruce Levine claimed the 9-year-old gelding for owner Mike Repole. “Will evaluate his condition before deciding to race/retire,” tweet-reported David Grening.

Jaycito makes his 28th career start on Monday, running in the 10th at Zia Park. He’ll be running at his lowest level yet — $30K, which is $20K less than the G1 winner’s purchase price at Keeneland in November 2013. [9/22/14 Update: Jaycito finished third, beaten 10 1/2 lengths. He was not claimed.]

Suffolk Notes

Penn National, George Carney, and as-yet-unidentified revenue streams. If you follow horse racing — if you follow Massachusetts racing — it sounds like the set-up to a bad joke, doesn’t it? But those are the options for continuing Thoroughbred racing in the state that the Massachusetts Gaming Commission will discuss at a meeting next Thursday. “Empty posturing,” said Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle, who gave notice of layoffs to the state Labor department and 176 track workers on Wednesday.

The Commission apparently plans to ask Penn National about the possibility of a Thoroughbred meet. “It’s something we have not looked at,” VP of racing Christopher McErlean told Lynne Snierson, “but in the future, who knows?” The company is currently constructing a slots parlor at Plainridge; its renovations at the harness track don’t include a dirt or turf course.

Carney, and his son Christopher, owners of the Brockton Fairgrounds and the defunct dog racing track Raynham Park, are planning to request 2015 dates for their five-furlong dirt fairground course, which hasn’t been used since 2001. “It might not be big, glitzy, and glamorous, but it worked for us,” said Christopher Carney, extolling the virtues of a bullring track to Snierson:

Carney reasoned that since the dirt track is six furlongs and there is no turf course, out-of-town outfits would not ship in to compete against locals, as they have done at Suffolk Downs.

That sounds like a great racing product, just what the bettors love. Why such racing would appeal to some horsemen — and why, in the short-term, it might even be desirable as a source of jobs — is understandable, but there’s no shot that kind of racing survives long-term, and not only because it would attract so little attention and handle. Before the expanded gaming legislation passed, there were state legislators clamoring to reduce or eliminate the monies going into the Racing Development Fund so that it could be used for local or school aid. The subject hasn’t come up lately, partly because there hasn’t been any money, other than the Plainridge license fee, but mostly, because the state economy and budget aren’t stressed. When there’s a slump or shortfall, the RDF will become a target. Purses or textbooks? It’ll be an easy choice.

That Penn or Carney are what’s on the table is depressing. Racing at Suffolk might not have been the best, but track management didn’t neglect safety or aftercare issues, and the work they were doing with the state Racing Division in building a regulatory framework that relied on uniform rules and putting horse welfare first hinted at the quality of racing that could have been, even if average daily purses (with the RDF money) still didn’t quite reach the top tier.

Two links to leave with:

Jen Montfort stands up for Suffolk Downs:

Yes, it looks like parts of it haven’t been updated since the 50s, and you could probably stage an Olympic event based on navigating the undulating concrete floor. But they very well could’ve completely let the place go these past years, and they didn’t. It’s clean. The paint isn’t peeling. For a plant that is over 75 years old it’s in pretty good condition. The landscaping is actually quite lovely. And in the summer there is absolutely no better place to sit in the stands to watch some racing, enjoy a breeze off the ocean, and see that lovely infield and the marsh and Atlantic Ocean beyond.

And Bill Finley says goodbye:

There was absolutely nothing pretentious about Suffolk Downs or the people who called it home. There were the old war horses like Rise Jim, Let Burn, Darby Gillic and jockeys who rode not for the glory but to put food on the table, guys named Carl Gambardella, Rudy Baez, Jack Penney, Vernon Bush. Saratoga was classier. Santa Anita was prettier. Churchill had the Kentucky Derby. No one at Suffolk Downs cared. Jealousy wasn’t part of their fabric …

It was a beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder type of love affair that a lot of us had with Suffolk Downs but the place really was special, in its own unique, unapologetic, Boston working class way.

It really was. (Is, for five more racing days.)

No Bluff

When the Boston Globe endorsed the Wynn-Everett casino proposal the day before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission began its deliberations on the Boston-area license, the newspaper dismissed the likelihood that Suffolk Downs would close unless Mohegan Sun was the winner:

According to the track, it will end racing if the casino does not open. But the commission ought to take the doom-and-gloom warnings with a grain of salt; threats to close may be a pressure tactic.

Nope, to the surprise of no one who actually follows racing in Massachusetts. The track owners have been upfront about the situation for years — racing at Suffolk would continue only with a casino. (Had expanded gaming legislation not passed in 2011, it’s very possible the track would have closed then.) With the Mohegan bid dead, the process of shutting down began:

… on Wednesday morning, Suffolk Downs chief Chip Tuttle stood before 200 emotional employees in the Topsider Room overlooking the track, hailing them for fighting the good fight, and then telling them what they already knew. On his desk, a three-inch deep pile of letters giving employees 60 days notice awaited his signature.

Heartbreaking, as is Lynne Snierson’s report from Suffolk Downs, where people around the track were reeling from the loss and grappling with the question of what they would do next. “Where am I going to take my family and start my life over?”, said Tammi Piermarini, four-time leading jockey:

“I have to uproot and go someplace because riding horses is my business. It’s hard enough being a woman in a male-dominated sport, but now I’m 47. I may be the third-winningest female rider, but trainers are going to say, ‘What has she done lately?’”

Jon Chesto wonders why the commission seemingly gave less weight to the Thoroughbred industry than it did harness when it awarded the slots license to the Penn National-Plainridge proposal earlier this year:

For some reason, though, the commission handled this vote quite differently. Unlike in February, the commissioners gave no mention to the economic benefits of horse racing in their summarized assessments of the two proposals that became public last week. As a result, it was barely a factor in the final deliberations that led up to the 3-1 vote … Mohegan got points for the design of its Revere proposal, and its cooperative efforts to reach a mitigation agreement with Boston officials. Mohegan didn’t get points, at least not formally, for protecting Suffolk’s workers.

Informally, it got points from Gayle Cameron, the sole commissioner to argue for Thoroughbred racing during deliberations (“We’re talking about preserving jobs, preserving the existing industry, and I think that’s worth some weight in this discussion,” she said on Monday) — and yet, she ultimately joined commissioners Enrique Zuniga and Bruce Stebbins in voting for Wynn.

Chesto suggests that the difference between the votes may have been due to Mohegan Sun distancing itself from the Suffolk racing operation, which was necessary because the East Boston referendum results mandated that there could be no casino operations or facilities on that side of the track’s property. Maybe — that certainly seems plausible. But maybe the commissioners — like the Globe — thought the track’s threat to close wasn’t entirely serious. In a report for the Commission, HLT Advisory downplayed the possible disruption to the state’s Thoroughbred industry if Suffolk shut down (PDF):

Despite public comments by Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC and others that Suffolk Downs will close if MSM is not successful with their Category 1 Application, continuation of thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts will be dependent on a variety of factors, including consumer interest in the racing product, ongoing underwriting of any future losses by Sterling Suffolk or others, underlying land value/development potential of the racetrack and competitive influences. Some thoroughbred racing activity may continue at Suffolk Downs or at another new/renovated racetrack elsewhere in Massachusetts in the future as revenues are generated for the Horse Racing Development Fund.

LOL at the idea of a new, non-casino racetrack being built in a local gaming market that’s about to become extremely competitive, even with 75% of the $133 million that HLT projects flowing into the Racing Development Fund over five years allocated to Thoroughbred racing:

The table provided by HLT to MGC showing the source of monies available to the Racehorse Development Fun and the five-year projected total

According to a statement issued this afternoon, “the Commission and its Racing Division are fully committed to an extensive and sustained exploration of every available option that may preserve the long tradition of thoroughbred racing in the Commonwealth.” They will discuss the matter at a meeting on September 25. The last day of racing at Suffolk Downs will be September 29.

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