JC / Railbird

Massachusetts

Plainridge Morning

Plainridge Park

It’s the only horse racing going in Massachusetts right now, so I went to Plainridge Park on Monday to catch Thursday’s rescheduled card. First post was 11:00 AM — too early to enjoy a snack before at Doug Flutie’s Sports Bar, although not too early for the crowd that was already settling into the new, cacophonous casino floor with its 1,250 slot and video gaming machines. When I emerged onto the track apron — after following a winding hallway that lost more glitz the closer it got to the beige and Formica simulcasting room — it was almost a relief to count only 28 other people out there with me.

That number went up, although not by much. By noon — that was race four — fewer than 100 people were along the rail or watching the flat screens inside. What I took for a larger group in the simulcasting room turned out to be eager casino patrons signing up for players’ rewards cards — Plainridge was processing their new loyalists in the one place they had space and the noise level didn’t make it impossible to capture that all-important marketing data.

I don’t know much about Standardbreds or harness racing, except that they’re sturdy animals who often run weekly and that horses breaking from the one hole have an outsized chance at winning because of likely ground saving. I also know that at Plainridge they’re now running for higher purses funded by casino licensing fees and a percent of gaming revenues via the 25% split harness racing gets from the state’s Racehorse Development Fund, which makes total handle a little less of a concern for horsemen and the track, and that — today, anyway — they were running races every 12 minutes. It was almost as though they were running the card as a formality.

Plainridge Park
The Plainridge Park simulcasting room.

Plainridge Park
Grandstand exterior. Tents and picnic tables were set up along the wall.

Plainridge Park
Lining up for the start of a race. A classic car with “Raceway Park” stenciled on the doors handled gate duty.

Plainridge Park
Coming down the stretch for the first time.

Plainridge Park
Debs Girloffortune (#1, outside) wins the first race.

Plainridge Park
A horse warms up in front of the crowd along the rail.

Postponed

Suffolk Downs’ application for three days of live racing this year — July 11, August 8, and September 5 — has been knocked back another month. In the Massachusetts Gaming Commission meeting on Thursday morning, general counsel Catherine Blue reported to the commissioners that her office was still reviewing public comments on the proposal and had sent several questions to the track’s executives seeking clarification on various points. Blue said that she expects to return with an update on the application at the second MGC meeting in July, which means the first planned date “won’t be possible.”

Conditions for 12 races on July 11, previously available on Equibase, have been removed, and the July 11 steeplechase scheduled at Suffolk Downs has been re-carded at Parx. An August 8 jumps race at the East Boston track is still on the National Steeplechase Association’s calendar.

Hundreds were lined up to play the slots at Plainridge as soon as the doors opened on Wednesday, “and within three hours … the casino had hit its fire department-imposed capacity of 3,750 people.” Not everyone loved the crowd:

Al Valenti of Framingham said he waited about an hour to get in, and was dismayed by the congestion inside.

“I like to be able to spread out,” he said.

Mr. Valenti should come back on Monday for racing. That’s when Thursday’s card will be run, with first post at the unlikely hour of 11:00 AM. “Plainridge postponed Thursday’s harness card because of anticipated casino traffic,” tweeted Tom LaMarra, adding later, in conversation, “I don’t think they get how bad this looks.” So it does, but here’s the thing — nobody’s watching. The money pouring into the ringing, dinging, blinking machines is too distracting.

Opening Day

If you’re a fan of Thoroughbred racing, or anyone affiliated with Thoroughbred racing, in Massachusetts, then today is probably a bittersweet day, emphasis on the bitter — the state’s first slots parlor opens this afternoon at Plainridge, the state’s sole harness track. “The casino is projecting $20 million a month in gaming revenue.” Nine percent of that revenue will flow into the Racehorse Development Fund, set up to support horse racing in the Commonwealth with a split of 75 percent for Thoroughbred purses and breeding, 25 percent for Standardbreds. Millions have been banked, millions more will be added.

Purses at the harness track are already running higher:

Plainridge offered $38,300 in purses on Tuesday’s 10-race card. As recently as 2013, the average purse was $2,700 and last year they averaged $30,000 but were overpaid by $900,000.

“We’ve already turned $3,000 claimers into $4,000 claimers and purses can only go up. It’s all positive,” said trainer and driver Jim Hardy.

Bill Abdelnour, a director of the Harness Horseman’s Association of New England, told the Sun Chronicle, “People can pretty much count on harness racing being around for a long time.”

The same can’t be said of Thoroughbred racing, which is looking for dates and a home after Suffolk Downs and Mohegan Sun lost their bid for a Boston-area casino license to Wynn in September 2014. An application to run three days this year at the track is before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission; an update on the application is on the agenda for the commission’s June 25 meeting. The three-day proposal was criticized as not doing enough for New England horsemen in a public hearing two weeks ago.

Neither breed has enjoyed robust days in recent years — attendance and handle have been in decline for both — and how Plainridge won the slots license and Suffolk Downs lost the casino is a more complicated story than fits this post, but Thoroughbred racing was the bigger draw, employer, and revenue generator of the two by far. It’s just the latest odd turn on the long road to expanded gaming in Massachusetts that as the doors open on casinos, the future of Thoroughbreds in the state is what’s in doubt.

Circling

The best-case scenario is that the commissioners table it or just say ‘no’ in a formal vote,” said trainer Bill Lagorio of Suffolk Downs’ application to run three live racing days this year, which is pending before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. That might be taking for granted the money set aside for Thoroughbred racing in the state’s Racehorse Development Fund.

Tammi Piermarini, a five-time leading rider at Suffolk Downs and the third-winningest female jockey in racing, has moved on to Parx. Her book is being handled by a name familiar to New England fans — former rider Joe Hampshire has signed on as Piermarini’s agent. Her services are in demand, reports the jockey, and she and her family have settled in well at their new home.

The Massachusetts Experiment

One year’s decline isn’t a trend, but the fatality rate reduction at Suffolk Downs reported by racing director Jennifer Durenberger is still impressive:

Let’s look first at the catastrophic injury rate for the meet: 1.24 per thousand starts. This is down from 1.73 in 2013 — a nearly 30 percent reduction …

Thanks to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database (EID), which captures data from an amazing 93 percent of all flat racing days, we know that the average catastrophic injury rate in 2013 was 1.9 per thousand starts. That includes all horses — young and old, graded stakes competitors and seasoned claimers, sprinters and routers, turf specialists and mudders. When we separate that by surface, we see a nationwide average of 1.63 catastrophic injuries per thousand turf starters and 2.08 per thousand dirt starters. At Suffolk Downs in 2014, the turf rate was 1.44 and the dirt rate was 1.20 — less than 60 percent of the national average.

Among the losses incurred by Suffolk Downs’ demise, count the reform work done by state regulators in partnership with track management since 2012, work that included adopting uniform medication rules and a horse-first welfare policy, making racing safer for vulnerable (older, cheaper) horses.

Odds and Ends

Exacta-mundo on the current state of turf blogging: “… I can’t help but think we’re now truly in a time when there’s no one left to ask the needed questions without feeling like they have something to lose.”

If you’re in Massachusetts, you still stand to lose 5% on winning wagers paying more than $600: An amendment striking the new withholding requirement, which went into effect this spring, didn’t make it into the final version of the supplemental budget bill passed by the state legislature. How many Bay State bettors have been affected? Racing director Jennifer Durenberger told the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in this morning’s meeting that the state’s three simulcasting licensees report a total of 860 instances of state withholding since May, compared to 10 for federal withholding.

Another kind of loss: “… last Saturday at Hollywood was either a celebration or an early funeral.” (For consolation, see the coach.)

Keep ‘Em Going

Part two of a six-part series on drugs in racing by Ryan Goldberg for the TDN considers the current, not-so-pretty situation (PDF):

It seems a trainer would have to be crazy to use illegal drugs when so many legal ones are at his disposal. Before the days of pharmacological drugs, the goal was to “hop ‘em or stop ‘em,” but what the picture looks like now is an everyday practice of using drugs to manage pain and other complications to get a horse to post. Since the majority of horses race for tags, it makes sense. “The claiming game does not protect the horse,” Scollay says. “It’s like day- trading on the stock market.”

The respiratory drug clenbuterol, its anabolic properties, and the widely differing state-by-state guidelines for its use get particular attention; Massachusetts is among the states listed in Goldberg’s piece as offering no guidelines. That was the case through the 2012 Suffolk Downs meet — since then, though, Massachusetts has joined seven other states in adopting the Mid-Atlantic Uniform Medication Program, which allows for 24 therapeutic drugs and sets guidelines for their use, and the Massachusetts Gaming Commission began the process of incorporating the new rules in January 2013 (PDF). Under the new guidelines, clenbuterol will no longer be permitted within 14 days of racing. Corticosteroids won’t be allowed within seven days.

The 80-Day Compromise

In every deal, compromises are made. In the agreement made official on Friday between Suffolk Downs and the NEHBPA on the terms for the 2011 and 2012 meets, the track compromised by agreeing to an equal simulcasting revenue split; the horsemen compromised by agreeing to race 80 days.

Just as the split was a significant concession by Suffolk, so the days were for the NEHBPA, which had maintained until late in negotiations that 100 days were the minimum the horsemen could accept, in part to support the Massachusetts breeding program. Last week, the horsemen agreed to the shortened meet, but not to remain neutral on the legislation required to reduce days, a point the board ultimately conceded.

“We only conceded on the dates because from the onset Suffolk Downs made clear it would not run 100 days although state law required it to do so. So our only options were to either concede to Suffolk’s demands or compromise on days,” said NEHBPA counsel Frank Frisoli in an email, replying to the question of how the board had come to agreement on the matter of race dates.

Referring to the bill filed in the Massachusetts legislature that would allow Suffolk to race fewer than 100 days and continue simulcasting, Frisoli said that many on the NEHBPA board believed that if they didn’t agree to run a shorter meet, there would be no live racing at the track this year. It was 80 days or nothing — but the horsemen wanted some protection. “That proposed legislation delegates to the racing commission the right to excuse Suffolk from complying with state law as to the number of racing dates,” said Frisoli. “We advised Suffolk that was a deal killer.”

In exchange for accepting fewer race dates, the NEHBPA negotiated its non-opposition to the bill to apply only to the number of days required for simulcasting. “The NEHBPA will oppose the Petrucelli legislation and any other legislation which does anything more than reduce the minimum number of days to 80 for 2011 and 2012,” said Frisoli.

The terms of the agreement also provides the board with a powerful incentive to respect the neutrality provision in the hard-fought deal. “If any NEHBPA board member or employee takes action to oppose legislation to reduce dates, Suffolk can void the contract in which event the race meet will end,” said Frisoli. “I expect that our board members will comply with the contractual obligation, no matter how personally distasteful it may be to them.”

Frisoli, a horse owner of more than 35 years, said that he would “actively support” the legislation as the NEHBPA counsel. “I [will do what I] can to see that it passes in the belief that Suffolk Downs is entitled to the benefit of its contractual bargain and that the passage of the legislation would actually be of benefit to the NEHBPA in that it will ensure live meets for 2011 and 2012 and improve our relationship with Suffolk Downs.”

Now that the dispute is over, we can all look forward to the return of racing in East Boston. “The NEHBPA is delighted that we were able to reach an agreement,” said Frisoli. So are Massachusetts racing fans.

Suffolk Deal Struck

It’s official! Live racing is on! After more than six weeks of tense negotiations, the bitter dispute between Suffolk Downs and the NEHBPA over the 2011 meet ended today in a two-year agreement on purses, days, and the simulcasting revenue split. The track will run 80 days for $8.25 million (that’s average daily purses of $103,125), and will split net simulcasting revenue 50-50 with the horsemen. If handle reaches a certain benchmark by June 30, an additional five days of racing will be run. The NEHBPA agreed to remain neutral on legislation to reduce race days; Suffolk agreed to keep the barn area open from late April to mid-November. Racing is expected to begin in May. Stall applications, the condition book, and the schedule will be available in coming weeks.

“As we strive to offer a competitive racing program that is attractive to fans and horsemen, we are gratified that the NEHBPA has agreed that fewer days for higher purses is preferable to the alternative,” said Suffolk COO Chip Tuttle in a statement. “Having reached an agreement, we look forward to the 2011 racing season and to working together on expanded gaming legislation in Massachusetts that will create jobs, generate revenue for the state, benefit the local economy and ensure a strong foundation for racing here in the future.”

It’s been confirmed that the Aqueduct and Gulfstream simulcasting signals, which had been blocked as part of the dispute, will be restored on Saturday. Signals pulled in solidarity by Maryland, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Oregon horsemen could also be on as soon as tomorrow. (Of course, the question is how many horseplayers — who have scattered to Rockingham and other nearby simulcasting parlors over the past month — will return to Suffolk.)

8:45 PM Update: “[The NEHBPA] is very pleased it was able to successfully and amicably negotiate with Suffolk Downs a fair and equitable purse agreement for 2011 that also provides for a fair and equitable sharing of revenue for the year 2012,” reads the horsemen’s press release. “It looks forward to partnering with Suffolk Downs for a successful race meet in 2011 and subsequent years and seeks to develop a strong and amicable relationship with Suffolk Downs that permits the parties to work toward their mutual advantage.”

Also noted in the press release: “The decision to compromise the dispute by agreeing to accept less than the state-mandated minimum of 100 days of live racing was reached only after a majority of the Board of Directors of the NEHBPA concluded that in the absence of such compromise there would be no live racing …” Suffolk was quite serious about running a shorter meet, a justified position given the steep drop in handle since 2007.

More on this matter from Lynne Snierson, who spoke with NEHBPA counsel Frank Frisoli about the deal this evening. “[W]e looked at this and agreed to the 80 days because it was that or not have a meet,” he said. “This deal is in the best interest of our membership, the Massachusetts breeders, the farm industry, and all of the others involved.”

3/5/11 Addendum: “Did anyone apologize to the fans?” No, and why not?

Almost There

Suffolk Downs and the NEHBPA have reportedly agreed in principle to a deal for the 2011 meet. An official end to the acrimonious six-week dispute over purses, days, and the simulcasting revenue split is expected on Wednesday — once one small remaining point of contention is settled.

3/3/11 Update: Wednesday passed without announcements or news. The no-opposition letters are reportedly the sticking point. Updates, as available — here’s hoping we’ll know more on Thursday.

3/4/11 Update: Still no official word, no sign that signals have been restored.

10:30 AM Addendum: After several quiet days, unfortunate news. A source involved in the negotiations said this morning, “I thought we had a deal but it fell apart. If it doesn’t get done today we may be in for a long wait.” Talks continue. Updates, as developments or details become known.

7:30 PM Addendum: An agreement has been reached!

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