The Massachusetts Gaming Commission takes up Suffolk Downs’ application for three days of living racing this year once again on Thursday — a vote on the three-day plan and a discussion of the 2016 racing season are on the agenda for the MGC meeting that begins at 10:30 AM. The track is amending its requested dates to September 5, October 3, and October 31.
Lynne Snierson reports for the Blood-Horse that there will be no lease deal with the Stronach Group to run a full meet at Suffolk Downs — the scenario sketched by trainer Billy Lagorio at the Commission’s meeting two weeks ago, prompting a delay on the application then:
“I can say definitively that we will not have an arrangement whereby The Stronach Group will lease or operate racing here,” Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle told the Blood-Horse Aug. 5.
Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group and a Boston native who began his career as a jockey at the once-thriving New England tracks, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Tuttle and Ritvo talked on July 29 about any potential Stronach Group interest in running racing in East Boston. They had no further discussion. Ritvo did speak with the Boston Globe for a July 30 article, politely shutting down the idea of a Stronach-managed meet in the near future. “Boston is a very lucrative market and we’re interested,” he told reporter Sean Murphy. “We’re open to anything, but it seems like a stretch to get it done immediately.”
How can so many of the game’s practitioners fail to see that what they accept as “unfortunate accidents that are part of the game” is unacceptable to an unknowing and unsophisticated populace?
Do so many horsemen wear closed-cup blinkers that they cannot see “taking a bad step” is nothing more or nothing less than animal cruelty in the public’s eye, a public that could shut the whole down thing down because for 15 minutes they were empowered to take action and feel good about themselves?
That’s what happened in Massachusetts to greyhound racing, an animal sport nationally in steep decline, partly due to dog welfare and safety issues.
Could the dispute be nearing an end? Late Thursday, the NEHBPA board voted to reject a proposal for the 2011 meet made by Suffolk Downs. “As it was written,” said Frank Frisoli, clarifying that the group could not accept the offer with its request that the horsemen not oppose state legislation reducing race dates. “We can’t abrogate our members’ right of free speech,” said the lawyer, explaining the horsemen’s opposition to the provision. “And we are not going to take any position supporting [Suffolk’s] legislative agenda.”
Modifying the offer to exclude that request, the NEHBPA board unanimously accepted the track’s proposal, agreeing to total purses offered of $8.25 million and an equal simulcasting revenue split. The horsemen have even agreed to race 80 days if the legislature approves a bill allowing Suffolk to run fewer than 100 days. If days are not reduced, then the horsemen will race for 100 days for the same purses.* “We’ve essentially accepted their position,” said Frisoli. The modified proposal has been submitted to Suffolk, and will be published on the New England horsemen’s website at some time. Until it is, I’ve posted a copy of the press release (PDF) here.
4:45 PM Addendum: What horseplayers want to know: When do the signals return? And, because I’ve commented a few times before that the horsemen have not acknowledged the effect of the dispute on racing fans, I have to point out that the NEHBPA proposal does just that on page two: “There is no doubt that this impasse has also inconvenienced the patrons who wager and support horseracing.” Appreciate the mention, even belated.
6:15 PM Update: Don’t head to Suffolk on Saturday expecting Aqueduct. Responding to the offer from the horsemen, Suffolk Downs vice president of marketing and communications Christian Teja said, “We’ve made several concessions in the interest of having a quality meet this year, including keeping the barn area open for 30 weeks and paying over $100,000 in daily purses at the request of the NEHBPA. The increase in purses was contingent upon one condition, neutrality on legislation to reduce the number of days required to simulcast, that the NEHBPA is unwilling to meet. We will assess all our options, including legislative relief independent of the HBPA.”
2/26/11 Addendum: Suffolk Downs, NEHBPA “far apart on a key issue,” reports Lynne Snierson. “In my mind, we’re very close,” Frisoli said yesterday.
*If the horsemen were to race 100 days for $8.25 million, however, that would bring the average daily purses down to the level both sides agreed was too low to support racing. I assume they’re gambling on the race day reduction.
That’s the question for the Massachusetts racing community now. After days of intense discussions, and with time running out, a source reports that the NEHBPA board rejected the latest proposal from Suffolk Downs for the 2011 meet by a vote of 5-4, with one abstention, in a meeting on Thursday night.
Before the meeting, NEHBPA counsel Frank Frisoli told the Blood-Horse, “[Feb. 25] is the day for us to get back to them, and they said after that their position is likely to change. Ours would then change as well.”
What change there will be to their positions is uncertain. The horsemen have been seeking 100 days of racing, purses totaling up to $10.6 million, and an equal split of net simulcasting revenue. In its proposal of February 18, a copy of which was provided by a source, the track offered 75-80 days of racing, plus five additional days if a target for handle was hit by June 30, and total purses of $8.25 million. In later negotiations, Suffolk also reportedly agreed to the 50-50 simulcasting revenue split — a significant concession.
However, the track’s offer was made with the caveat that if blocked simulcasting signals were not restored by this weekend, days and purses could be cut — and the issue of days appears to be the cause of the scuppered deal. For the track to race fewer than 100 days, the state-mandated minimum for simulcasting, the legislature would have to pass a bill allowing a shorter meet. Suffolk’s offer was premised on the horsemen not opposing such a bill.
With the dispute now in its fifth week, and simulcasting handle at Suffolk down almost 45% this month due to the blocked signals, the situation — which seemed to be approaching a resolution — has taken a worrisome turn.
7:45 AM Update: Lynne Snierson has more on the days:
“We will let Suffolk petition the legislature to reduce the number of days of racing,” Frisoli said. “The one thing we won’t do is support their petition to race fewer than 100 days. If the legislature agrees to reduce the number of days, then we’ll race whatever days the state requires.”
Negotiations will continue today in an effort to reach an agreement.
10:45 AM Addendum: Coming back to a couple of points — the average daily purses Suffolk is offering range from $103,000 for 80 days to $110,000 for 75 days. The horsemen were given the option of choosing which structure they preferred. Either way, the average meets or exceeds the daily purses proposed by the horsemen to the track on February 10, in which purses were estimated at $95,000 to $100,000, based on an equal split of available revenue, assuming revenue remained level with 2010. That seemed a risky assumption, considering the downward trend in Suffolk’s handle, and it was on that basis that track management turned down the offer after calculating that purses would probably run $82,500 per day — not much more than the $79,000 daily that was being paid at the end of last year’s meet and an average for which the horsemen said they could not run this year. On that matter, all agreed.
Days are a trickier issue. In the offer made by Suffolk, management wrote, “our proposal requires that the NEHBPA not oppose the legislation and not oppose a request to the [Massachusetts Racing Commission] that the requirement be reduced to match the number of days set forth in our agreement.” In the quote Frisoli gave Snierson after Thursday’s meeting, he said, “The one thing we won’t do is support their petition to race fewer than 100 days. If the legislature agrees to reduce the number of days, then we’ll race whatever days the state requires.” This reads like very small matter of semantics — Suffolk does not ask the horsemen to support, it asks that they not oppose. It would seem that the horsemen’s counsel is saying that the NEHBPA won’t oppose a bill reducing days, which is the concession Suffolk seeks, but his statement does not indicate agreement. I’ve attempted to contact Frisoli for clarification and hope to have more on this point this afternoon.
2:45 PM Update: Clarified! In a conversation this afternoon, Frisoli said that the NEHBPA board has unanimously agreed to accept Suffolk’s proposal, with one change. Steve Myrick of the Thoroughbred Times has the story.
The NEHBPA board met on Monday night for round two of a discussion on the latest offer from Suffolk Downs for the 2011 meet. There was no resolution to the dispute at the meeting’s conclusion. Via email, NEHBPA lawyer Frank Frisoli said this morning that the board “is continuing to discuss the matter and is seeking to discuss alternatives and modifications with Suffolk Downs.”
As Lynne Snierson reported for the Blood-Horse yesterday, and a Railbird source confirmed, the net simulcasting revenue split remains contentious, and days may be a matter of dissension within the board. The horsemen have sought 100 days of racing this year. Suffolk, which originally offered 67-76 days, has now proposed 75-85 days. What does not seem an issue at this point is the track’s total purse offer of $8.4 million. That’s about the total paid last year, and matches up with the horsemen’s last offer to the track.
Regarding the proposal, Frisoli noted, “we believe [it] remains open.” Contrary to a report yesterday that Suffolk has threatened to shut down in March if the blocked simulcasting signals were not restored by February 26, a source indicated that there is no deadline to the proposal, although it is based on revenue assumptions that may not hold if signals are not restored soon. The board will meet again to discuss the offer on February 23.
9:30 PM Addendum: Lynne Snierson has more on Monday night’s meeting. As mentioned above, days remain an issue. Snierson’s source says that that board is in agreement on 100 days; Frisoli’s response is a study in lawyerly parsing:
“Part of the problem is that the number of live racing days is more important to some of our members than it is to others. As a board, we are trying very hard to do a good job of representing the entire membership. I think the board is doing that.”
Also clarified is the possibility that the purses and days on offer will be cut if simulcasting signals are not restored quickly, as a racetrack source told Railbird yesterday. “[T]he offer Suffolk has on the table now is contingent upon all simulcast signals being turned back on no later than Feb. 27. After that, Suffolk will start cutting race days and total purses,” reports Snierson.
The NEHBPA and Suffolk Downs resumed negotiations this afternoon, one week after the horsemen offered the track a proposal for the 2011 meet, and almost four weeks after talks over purses, days, and the simulcasting revenue split initially broke down. No details of the discussion were divulged. Frank Frisoli, the horsemen’s lawyer, sent the following statement:
The NEHBPA conferenced with representatives of Suffolk Downs this afternoon. It anticipates receiving a proposal in the very near future from Suffolk Downs which will be presented to the Board of Directors of the NEHBPA.
The NEHBPA will have no further comments on this matter pending receipt of a proposal.
Track officials have not yet commented.
Hopefully, that the horsemen expect a proposal soon from Suffolk is a sign some progress was made today in finding a resolution to the bitter dispute.
2/18/11 Addendum: Lynne Snierson reports on the Thursday conversation:
“We had a good dialogue today and some of it is encouraging,” said Chip Tuttle, chief executive officer of the East Boston, Mass., track. “There are some places where we still have additional work to do to reach a consensus. We will keep the process moving forward.”
In light of the past few weeks, that’s a promising statement.
9:00 PM Update: “Constructive” talks continued on Friday …
It is Frisoli and the NEHBPA’s contention that shortly, if a contract cannot be ironed out, other HBPA’s around the country — such as Gulfstream Park — will block their signals from being sent to Suffolk out of solidarity to the New England horsemen’s plight. Stay tuned for that one.
Pity the horseplayers, caught between.
Yesterday’s post may have been intemperate. Via Twitter, I heard from a New England horseman that the dispute with Suffolk Downs is one of fairness. “[W]e … just want what every other racing jurisdiction gets, a 50/50 split on simo revenues, not 75/25 split for suf.” For another, who prefers anonymity, it’s about protecting the state-mandated days the horsemen have now and the Massachusetts breeding program, which registered two foals in 2010. “If the Downs runs less days this year, it won’t run more next year,” he said. “We’ll never see those days again.” Underlying the fight over purses and dates is also the memory of purse reductions last August following the failure of expanded gaming legislation, cuts that left many on the backstretch feeling demoralized.
That the horsemen have legitimate concerns isn’t in question. They’re fighting for their livelihoods, and they’re in a desperate spot. And, of course, there’s the possibility of slots. Everyone wants to hang on, in case …
And yet, Lynne Snierson’s Blood-Horse report on Suffolk’s “militant” horsemen was a stunning read. The NEHBPA’s stance belies broader trends in racing; there are reasons contraction is a hot topic across the industry. The tactic was tried at Rockingham; there is no thoroughbred racing at Rockingham anymore. Suffolk, legislatively freed to run shorter meets, may not run 100-plus day meets again, but horses won’t race at all in East Boston if the track is closed, and very few outside Massachusetts would notice. “If [horsemen] continue to thumb their noses at Suffolk Downs in hopes for a currently non-existent alterative venue in Massachusetts in which to conduct thoroughbred racing,” writes Foolish Pleasure, “do they seriously believe anyone outside of their little circle will care when the lights go out for good there?” A Paulick Report commenter certainly doesn’t: “Good luck running those horses anywhere else.”
Frustrated by a breakdown in negotiations with Suffolk Downs over 2011 purses and race dates, the lawyer representing the New England horsemen’s group is considering alternate venues for live racing, reports the Blood-Horse:
“If Suffolk Downs doesn’t want to work with us, we’ll find someone else that does. There is no reason we have to have live racing at Suffolk Downs.”
The New England horsemen are good people, but this is mad, as is their lawyer Frank Frisoli’s assertion that, “Suffolk [management] can recognize that we’re a partnership, or they can continue to stick their head in the sand.”
It’s not management that’s playing ostrich. Over the past four years, Suffolk has restored parts of the cut stakes schedule, fixed up bits of the grandstand and backstretch, celebrated a 75th anniversary — and lost $40 million keeping racing going. That’s not because Suffolk management is filled with altruists — if expanded gaming ever comes to Massachusetts, the track expects returns on that money many times over — but it has gallantly sustained the unsustainable. The message being sent this winter, and which the horsemen can’t seem to hear for the sand in their ears, is blunt — no more.
Sadly it appears the end may be near for racing in New England. The HBPA is blocking the NYRA signal as no agreement was reached with the horsemen. After the worst meet in racing history and no extended gambling passed last year, I didn’t think there would be much chance of racing returning. I figured Suffolk would just fade away.
When live harness racing ceased at Rockingham Park last year, it went with a whimper. The same could happen at Suffolk Downs, the last link to a once great thoroughbred racing circuit. Neither the Boston Globe nor the Boston Herald published even a paragraph on the dispute between the New England horsemen and track management over 2011 purses and days that resulted in the NYRA signal being blocked. The horsemen allege negotiations not done in good faith (PDF), the track that the financial situation is grim:
“The unfortunate fact of the matter is that absent expanded gaming, the business model for 100 days of racing here is not sustainable,” said Chip Tuttle, Suffolk Downs chief operating officer. “The horsemen are having a very difficult time coming to grips with that.”
We’ve been here before with Suffolk. After the stakes schedule was cut in 2005, I posted a pessimistic piece melodramatically titled, “It’s Dying,” and worried about the inevitable end of thoroughbred racing in New England. The economics have only worsened since, but the track, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, still has found a way to open for racing each spring. Management has been betting on slots, and in 2010, thanks to intense lobbying and a state leadership largely in agreement on expanded gaming, their wager came tantalizingly close to paying off, before the bill foundered over the number of racinos the governor would approve.
A new casino bill was filed at the start of the 2011 state legislative session. The game’s still on, and I’m willing to bet, racing will be too, for another year.
Whether that’s good, at the likely purse level, is another matter. Suffolk is offering $75,000 per day for the state-mandated minimum of 100 days. The horsemen want $106,000, which Suffolk countered by offering reduced race dates. Daily purses of $75,000 would be the lowest on the East Coast, and the racing, for that sum or $106,000 per day, over 100 days or 67 days, is certain to be a reprise of last year’s bottom-level cards. That’s not only bad for bettors, it’s bad for the horses and humans on the backstretch.
Copyright © 2000-2015 by Jessica Chapel. All rights reserved.