JC / Railbird


Brockton Delays

The racetrack at Brockton Fair

Planned racing at the Brockton Fair has been pushed back to August:

The property owner and the association both said that more time was needed to budget for administrative costs and to fix the inner rail of the track, which was damaged by a vandal last year who stole about 1,000 feet of the metal barrier to sell for scrap.

“We would have hoped to start a little bit sooner,” said Bill Lagorio, president of the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “We are hoping, with all things considered now, we’ll race in August, September and October. … We don’t mind going a little further into the fall because it’s nice racing weather anyway.”

If a meet at Brockton happens this year, training and racing will take place over four months on the five-furlong dirt track. Lagorio addressed safety concerns raised by observers about that plan:

Lagorio also responded to criticism of the track, which he said is mostly being leveled by a rival horse racing association that is participating in the six races at Suffolk Downs this year. Lagorio said that some people unfairly point to the injury of one horse when racing last took place at the Brockton Fairgrounds in 2001, but he said the sport inherently has its risks.

“There’s nothing not safe about Brockton,” Lagorio said.

Count me among the worried, and not because of anything that happened 15 years ago. Thanks to greater attention on safety issues, ongoing research, and the Equine Injury Database, we now know more about track surfaces, injuries, and risks than we did a decade ago. We know that dirt tracks consistently register more fatalities than turf or synthetic tracks, averaging 2.07 fatalities per 1000 starts from 2009-2014, compared to 1.65 for turf and 1.22 for synthetics. Over the same six years, races at distances less than six furlongs averaged 2.25 fatalities per 1000 starts, compared to 1.82 for races six to eight furlongs, and 1.74 for races longer than eight furlongs.

The work of Dr. Mick Peterson has yielded clues into how track maintenance and moisture content affects safety. Dr. Tim Parkin, studying the EID, has identified factors that may make a horse more vulnerable to fatal injury, including past injury, time between starts, drops in claiming price, and age.

For what Dr. Parkin’s work means in practice when it comes to a vulnerable horse population, read Dr. Jennifer Durenberger’s Thoroughbred Racing Commentary piece about reducing the fatality rate at Suffolk Downs in 2014:

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. While I maintain that this particular metric tells only a small part of a much bigger story about the job we do protecting the overall safety and welfare of our equine athletes, it’s still the easiest number for us as an industry to obtain and compare across jurisdictions — both major league and minor league. 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.

Thanks to some of Dr. Tim Parkin’s comprehensive epidemiological analysis of five years of EID data, we know that there are certain risk factors associated with catastrophic injury. Nine have been identified with statistical significance, including older horses, horses making “numerous starts within the past 1-6 months,” and horses entered in claiming races for a tag less than $25,000. It’s no secret that the vast majority of horses competing at Suffolk Downs fit squarely within this profile. For years, Suffolk has welcomed equine athletes in the later stages of their careers and helped transition them once the race was over. Our catastrophic injury rate was achieved amongst a population of some of the highest-risk horses in the country — competing for some of the lowest purses in the country.

High-risk horses competing for small purses — that’ll be racing at Brockton.

And those horses will be training and racing on a bullring that’s five furlongs with a chute. Last month, at the Grayson-Jockey Club Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, Dr. Peterson addressed an issue that should interest anyone considering running at Brockton — what are the musculoskeletal effects of turning? You can watch the archived video of his presentation — it’s less than 20 minutes long, and begins at approximately 1:12. The upshot — turning is stressful, and more so on dirt surfaces, due to their variability. He raises a provocative question — “Do traction limited horses [as those running on dirt may be] have a certain number of allowable turning strides?”

The causes of racing injuries are complex, and safety can never be absolute — but the conditions that horses will be asked to race under at Brockton, and the kind of horses who will be entered to race, are higher risk.

One last thing — Brockton, as a condition of the racing license approved by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission last fall, only has to make a good faith effort to earn NTRA Safety Alliance accreditation.

Horses first, says the Massachusetts racing office. For all involved, racing at Brockton will put that motto to the test.

7/19/16 Update: The Brockton request for Race Horse Development Fund money for purses is back on the agenda for the July 21 MGC meeting.

Left Out

Display promoting the proposed New England HBPA horse park

Let’s talk about the New England HBPA proposal for a non-profit horse park, a multi-use complex comprising a racetrack, an equestrian center, and a retirement farm. The group released a feasibility study authored by the Center for Economic Development at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst late last week (PDF), which concluded that such a facility — a “truly unique” model — would have an annual economic impact of $98.9 million on the Massachusetts economy. More than $66 million would come from the Thoroughbred racetrack, $31.7 million from the equestrian center. More details about the equestrian center and the proposal’s numbers can be found in the Blood-Horse and Daily Racing Form articles about the study.

I’m a racing fan, and what I most want to know — when Suffolk Downs is gone, and the horse park is where I have to go to get my local racing fix — is what the racing will be like. The study sketches out a simple vision:

Page 4 —

[The economic impact totals] are built on the following assumptions: 75 racing days during a typical season between May and October; 9 races per day; 800 horses in residence throughout the season; an average of 3,000 spectators per race day; and an out-of-state attendance rate of 20 percent.

Page 7 —

The center will feature a one-mile dirt oval racetrack designed for the safest possible racing of Thoroughbred horses for a 60-90 day season per year. This track could also serve as a venue for Standardbred horse racing if there is interest. Within the oval is a 7/8 mile turf course. Overlooking the track will be a viewing stand capable of seating 4,000 patrons. Within this facility will be restaurants and local wagering areas.

Page 25 —

We estimate that the new facility will attract 225,000 spectators per year … [have a] relatively smaller grandstand … a typical racing day will draw somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 visitors, while special events (such as the MassCap) can draw up to 10,000. [The MassCap lives!]

Page 29 —

We assume that the present purse subsidies and breeding program established under the Expanded Gaming Act of 2011 will continue in their present form.

Page 30 —

[Purse and breeder incentives] will likely increase the share of Massachusetts horses racing at the new track. We use the conservative estimate that 400 active horses (or half of the assumed 800 horses on-site) will be from Massachusetts. In time, we expect an even larger share of horses racing at the new racetrack will be from in state …

So, a conventional track (aside: if you’re building a new racetrack “designed for the safest possible racing of Thoroughbred horses,” shouldn’t the main track be a turf course?), with a smaller grandstand (realistic) and a lot of Mass-bred racing supported by Race Horse Development Fund-subsidized purses.

This is an underwhelming vision, and that matters because Massachusetts racing and breeding is not isolated from the larger national market, and because financing the horse park development will depend on bonds backed by the state’s Race Horse Development Fund (legislation pending). There’s compelling public interest, in other words, in proposing a racetrack that reaches for the highest level, in the same way that the proposal does for the equestrian center, described in the report as “a first-class facility,” “capable of hosting elite national events.” Modeled on the Virginia Horse Center and Kentucky Horse Park, it’s supported by a Rolex Kentucky case study.

No racetrack case study is included in the report. There isn’t even an aspirational mention of an elite track such as Keeneland or Saratoga — although, as models, both have something to offer a new track proposal, particularly in what they do to draw spectators (one of the goals of the horse park) and to support state breeding programs and horse sales (another goal).

I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m down on the NEHBPA proposal — it’s interesting and full of potential, especially for drawing together equestrian and racing interests. But it’s an odd thing to read a study promoting a horse park for the good of horse racing (and breeding and jobs) that makes you wonder — why is there horse racing? And gives you the answer — because that’s the mechanism for accessing Race Horse Development Fund money. Horses race because the RDF pays, the RDF pays to keep horses racing. There’s no customer, no horseplayer, and no fan or handle growth in that perfect little circle of horsemen and state money. It’s not enough.

One other note about the study — page 30 discusses the sale of Mass-breds, and projects that out of the increased crop:

… the remaining 10 percent of foals are sold out-of-state at the national average auction price. Over the past three years, the average sale price from two-year old horses was approximately $70,000 per horse according to statistics from the U.S. Jockey Club. Thus, we include an addition $805,000 per year for expanded out-of-state horse sales.

Average prices being skewed by the market’s top end, the median price may be a better measure of how Mass-breds might do at auction. For 2-year-old horses in the past three years, the median has run around $31,000-$32,000, which would equal approximately $364,205 in expanded out-of-state sales.

1:15 PM Addition: Pedigree and sales expert Sid Fernando tweeted* about the sales assumptions in the study, adding some context to the discussion:

using a 2yo sale for projecting sales is not realistic. A yearling sale should be used, because 2yo sales are specialist events.

no one, in other words, breeds horses to sell at 2yo sales. Sellers of 2yos are usually second owners of horses.

usually state programs stimulate capital expenditure (buying stallions) by creating sire awards as adjunct to breeder awards…

…this, in turn, means more stud farms, more mares and more foals. State-bred foals are not typically commercial and have most…

…to horsemen in those programs because they race in restricted races. This stimulates local industry, for sure, but not…

…necessarily quality of horses produced because they are mostly the produce of local stallions. I think authors of paper didn’t

…have enough expertise to explain the mechanisms of all of this, good and bad, real and perceived.

economic impact to state must also capture amount of time mares are in state, for example. If a mare is sent to KY to be bred and

and returns by October, say, to qualify her resulting foal as MA-bred, that’s a mare 5 months out of state vs a mare bred to …

…local stallion. That’s why states incentivize local stallions, to keep mares in state.

He also pointed out:

btw, one area where [the study authors] underestimated economic impact: they said extra 115 foals would mean extra 115 mares, but in state …

programs fertility rates are about 50-55%, so need to effectively double mares to get 115 foals.

Additional mares would boost the estimated job and farm spending figures.

*Fernando’s account is private. He gave permission to quote the tweets above.

Back to the Downs

The field coming around the clubhouse turn on the Suffolk Downs turf course
Rounding the clubhouse turn in race eight on Saturday.

It was a weekend of familiar names and familiar faces (and a familiar voice in the announcer’s booth), but you couldn’t call the first two days of racing this year at Suffolk Downs dull — not with three state-bred stakes and a bridge jumper and a horse running off (just to start).

“It feels so good to be back and see how excited the fans are. After all, no matter where you go, your roots are your roots,” Tammi Piermarini told the Daily Item. The jockey was at Suffolk with a broken nose — which she told the Boston Globe she set herself after an accident at Finger Lakes — this weekend.

Piermarini began Saturday well, with a 15 3/4 length win aboard 1-9 favorite Dr. Blarney in the day’s first flat race, the African Prince Stakes for Mass-breds. The track’s four-time leading rider got her second win of the weekend in Sunday’s fourth race with Cotton Pickin. Later that afternoon, she rode Miss Wilby in the Isadorable Stakes. More than $30,000 in a $34,000 show pool was wagered on the 4-year-old filly, a winner of three state-bred stakes at Suffolk in 2015 and a stakes winner at Gulfstream earlier this year. She and Piermarini finished fourth, triggering show payouts of $8.80 on back-to-back Isadorable winner Navy Nurse, $21.20 on runner-up Chasing Blue, and a whopping $84.20 on third-place finisher Lucky Sociano.

Sunday’s other Mass-bred stakes, the Rise Jim, went to Silk Spinner, who rushed up late to catch 2015 Rise Jim winner Worth the Worry by a neck. The finish wasn’t all that was dramatic about the race — rider Dyn Panell’s mount Im Kwik was a late scratch after the 6-year-old gelding ran off in the post parade, circling the track twice before tiring. “Pull the chute,” someone in the crowd shouted at the jockey as he tried to pull up his speeding horse.

The jockey who had the best weekend was Pedro Cotto, winner of five races, including Saturday’s feature, the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash. Forest Funds, entered off a second in a stakes at Monmouth Park last month, opened up in the stretch to win the turf sprint by 1 3/4 lengths over Harp N Halo, paying $9. Favorite Ruby Notion, making her first start since a 13th-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf last October, was fourth.

There was a touching scene in the winner’s circle after the race, as trainer Bobby Raymond presented the Jellison Memorial trophy to Cotto and winning trainer Jorge Navarro, surrounded by several members of Suffolk’s jockey colony. The race was named to honor the late rider, at one time the leading active female jockey, who got her start in New England with Raymond in the 1980s and died of breast cancer in July 2015. Everyone agreed, Jellison would have approved of Cotto and and Forest Funds’ run — coming from off the pace with a late kick was how she liked to win.

Photos from the weekend:

The hurdlers pass by the first time
The field for the first race on Saturday, a 2 1/16 mile maiden hurdle, passes through the stretch for the first time. Silver Lime, a 7-year-old gelding, suffered a catastrophic right hind leg fracture going over the ninth, and final, jump. Reporter, ridden by Kieran Norris, won the race.

Maggiesfreuddnslip in the paddock
Maggiesfreuddnslip in the paddock before Saturday’s feature race, the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash. The 6-year-old mare finished third in the turf sprint.

Forest Funds wins the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash
Forest Funds and jockey Pedro Cotto win the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash.

Presenting the trophy for the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash
Trainer Bobby Raymond presents the trophy for the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash.

Take It Inside
Piermarini had trouble getting Take It Inside to leave the paddock before Sunday’s fifth. She and the outrider ended up backing the mare out to the track after Take It Inside refused to otherwise walk down the ramp.

Navy Nurse in the post parade for the Isadorable Stakes
Navy Nurse and rider David Amiss on track for the Isadorable. The 2015 winner came back to win again this year, paying $8.60 as the second favorite.

Dancetrack and Chris DeCarlo gallop back after winning the ninth race on Sunday
Chris DeCarlo and Dancetrack, trained by Bill Mott and owned by Juddmonte, gallop back after winning the ninth race at Suffolk Downs on Sunday.

Walking over for the last race of the weekend
Simply Mas walks over for the Rise Jim Stakes on Sunday.

Suffolk Draws 192 Entries, Miss Wilby Returns

Miss Wilby
Miss Wilby and rider Tammi Piermarini after winning the Louise Kimball Stakes at Suffolk Downs on October 3, 2015.

Entries are up for July 9 and 10 at Suffolk Downs. The first weekend of three scheduled for racing this year drew 192 starters for 22 races — including two steeplechase and three state-bred stakes — attracting a mix of horses who raced at the track in 2014-2015, Mass-breds, and out-of-state shippers from big name barns. Take note, horseplayers: Takeout is 15% across the board.

Saturday’s feature, the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash Stakes, honors the late jockey, a pioneering female rider prominent in the Suffolk colony. The $75,000 five-furlong turf sprint drew a field of 10, including Ruby Notion, a 3-year-old filly trained by Wesley Ward, making her first start since finishing 13th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Keeneland on October 30, and the Steve Asmussen-trained Lindisfarne, winless this year, but third to Queen Mary Stakes winner (and Nunthorpe runner-up) Acapulco in her last start, the Unbridled Sidney Stakes at Churchill Downs on May 14.

The first Mass-bred stakes of the weekend, the African Prince, follows the two steeplechase events that open Saturday’s card. In a short field of six, Dr. Blarney — coupled with Dr. Ruthless, both trained by Thomas McCooey — looks the obvious choice coming off an 8 1/2 length win in a Mass-bred allowance at Finger Lakes on June 11. In that start, the 3-year-old Dublin gelding defeated the 2015 Rise Jim Stakes winner Worth the Worry, who returns to Suffolk Downs to defend his victory on Sunday.

Also of interest on Saturday is Street Strut, a 3-year-old half-sister to graded stakes winner America by Street Cry. Trainer Bill Mott sends the first-time starter for race five, a maiden special weight turf route.

Two Mass-bred stakes highlight the Sunday card. Miss Wilby, winner of three state-bred stakes at Suffolk Downs in 2015, returns in the Isadorable Stakes (race eight) for trainer Marcus Vitali and is reunited with rider Tammi Piermarini. The Rise Jim Stakes (race 10) drew not only last year’s winner Worth the Worry, but 2014 winner and 2015 third-place finisher Victor Laszlo.

Rebuilding Brockton

Brockton Fair racetrack

Construction began at Brockton Fair several weeks ago to restore the racetrack for a planned Thoroughbred racing meet there this year, the first since 2001. Extensive work is required — it includes rebuilding the track surface and installing a new rail — and days for the meet have yet to be set. What was projected in May as a July 2 start was bumped back to mid-July and now, late July, while a request for up to $150,000 a day in purse money from the Race Horse Development Fund was dropped from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission’s June 23 meeting, to be rescheduled on a date to be determined.

“I couldn’t get it all together in time. There was just so much crammed in,” Chris Carney, whose family owns the fair property, told Lynne Snierson:

“I’m still working on the track, doing the rail, and taking care of a lot of other things.”

Carney said he plans to go back to the MGC in the middle of July in the hope of starting the meet July 30, but will have a better idea of how many race-ready horses remain in the area after Suffolk Downs starts the first of its one weekend per month, six-day 2016 meet the weekend of July 9-10. Suffolk will not race again until the weekend of Aug. 6-7.

“This is a minor setback,” Carney said. “If the rail from before hadn’t been stolen and I had a safety rail in place, I wouldn’t have a problem now. I have barns already set up for 150 horses and I’m working on the other barns. It’s just a matter of time.”

According to a Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen Association Facebook post from June 24, the track will open for training when the new rail is up:

Brockton Fair racetrack

Brockton is a five furlong track, wide enough for a maximum of eight horses in each race. Stall applications are open, via the MTHA’s website. A condition book — like the racing calendar — has not been released.

I visited the grounds on July 3 to see the track restoration in progress.

Photo of the grandstand from the first turn:

Brockton Fair racetrack

(Flashback: Horses racing on the clubhouse turn in 2001.)

View from the turn onto the backstretch:

Brockton Fair racetrack

And the view down the backstretch:

Brockton Fair racetrack

You can see that much of both rails are in place, with some bits to fix:

Brockton Fair racetrack

The paddock, looking toward the barns:

Brockton Fair racetrack

Piles of wood in place for the barn refurbishment that’s underway:

Brockton Fair racetrack

Opposition Delays Suffolk Decision

Thursday’s Massachusetts Gaming Commission meeting should have started with a bit of good news for Thoroughbred racing in the Commonwealth: It had a vetted application from Suffolk Downs to run three days this year on its agenda. It had a recommendation from state racing director Alex Lightbown to approve that application. It had Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle in the room to answer any lingering questions about the proposed plan, which called for an organization helmed by racetrack executive Lou Raffeto to run live racing on August 8, September 5, and October 3 for up to $500,000 in daily purses, with at least three state-bred stakes carded.

Instead, after 75 minutes of sometimes contentious discussion and occasionally fantastical testimony from trainer Bill Lagorio that the Stronach Group was interested in leasing the track to run a full meet, the Commission voted 4-1 to delay a decision on the application for two weeks, in the vague hope of establishing that interest. “We would be interested in a bigger deal, if a bigger deal could be made,” said Commission chair Steven Crosby. “I would like to know if there is a viable option out there.”

Commissioner James McHugh was alone in pushing back, asking how two more weeks would clarify the situation. A letter of interest from the Stronach Group had been requested, he said, “and it didn’t materialize.”

Prediction: It won’t. The Stronach Group sent a rather tepid statement via email re: the discussions reported by Lagorio and confirmed by Tuttle:

The horsemen contacted The Stronach Group to see if there was any interest. We contacted the ownership of Suffolk Downs to see if there was any way to participate in the racing operation. We’re a racing company, we look at racing properties. Boston is a big market and we have a lot of racing content. There is absolutely nothing in place after a few calls were made.

Lagorio, the leader of a group of horsemen opposing the three-day plan on the grounds that it doesn’t adequately support Massachusetts racing, recounts more positively his conversations with Stronach COO Tim Ritvo in a July 20 letter to commissioner Gayle Cameron (page 27 in this PDF):

I also had major breakthrough with the Stronach Group, on Thursday afternoon I received a call from Tim Ritvo … he told me his company had reviewed everything I had presented to him … and that they would like to be … here in the Commonwealth … Stronach views the Boston market as being untapped with unlimited potential; they’re looking for an opening to make it possible … Tim wasn’t sure if he would be able to make on the 23rd but said he would email the commission to verify to you their interest in making Massachusetts part of their success story.

At one point in Thursday’s meeting, the trainer said that the Stronach Group was so sure of Massachusetts’ racing promise that Ritvo had said they “didn’t need” the Race Horse Development Fund, which is funded by a percentage of casino license fees and revenues. The money is split 75-25 with the state’s harness racing industry and is available to support purses and breeding.

“Anyone who says they don’t need the Race Horse Development Fund is crazy in my mind,” replied Crosby.

Tuttle told the Commission that Ritvo “expressed a polite level of interest.”

The opposition horsemen would like to run at least 50 days and believe the $1.7 million in Race Horse Development Fund money allocated for the proposed purses in the three-day plan is better banked for a longer meet. Lagorio stated in Thursday’s meeting that $1.7 million could support several weeks of racing at the level it was run at Suffolk Downs in 2014 — never mind that that’s hardly the kind of racing anyone wants to watch or bet, or the sort of meet a shrinking industry with too-few foals is capable of supporting.

Crosby became caught up enough in the possibility of Stronach interest that he tried exploring how the Commission could use their power over Suffolk Downs’ simulcasting license to compel negotiations. “What’s the incentive for Suffolk Downs to negotiate?,” the chair asked after McHugh noted that without control of the simulcast signal, the Stronach Group wouldn’t see value in a lease to run racing. The subject was dropped when Tuttle protested that there was no reason for the Commission to compel any talks with an application for racing that met all statutory requirements pending.

Raffeto didn’t contain his outrage over the Commission’s vote to delay when he talked to Blood-Horse correspondent Lynne Snierson after the meeting:

“I’m speechless at this point,” he said. “To allow the leader of the dissidents to get up and talk about a potential offer that realistically has no merit in the long run? They can talk about it all they want, but as soon as the Stronach people come and take one look at the balance sheet of Suffolk Downs, they’re going to run so far in the other direction, and the horsemen will be left hanging.

“There is no way in the world that any other entity can come in here and lease this track and make it viable. I’ve seen the balance sheet and that’s the fact.”

That fact is why an earlier proposal for the New England HBPA to lease the track and run a full meet this year had to be scrapped when it became apparent that — even with the Race Horse Development Fund and a legislative rejiggering of revenue splits — there was no way to run without still losing money. The national HBPA and New England HBPA support the three-day plan.

Tuttle told Matt Hegarty at Daily Racing Form (DRF+):

“I’ve learned to expect the unexpected with this commission,” he said. “We reached a deal with the horsemen and breeders, and we are going to do our best to honor that, within reason. If we get any additional delays, we’re going to have to look at some other options.”

Suffolk’s COO also pointed out that the Stronach Group has had plenty of time to make something of their interest, telling Snierson:

“The Stronach Group is a very reputable and respectable racetrack operator, but they have had 10 months to kick the tires and express any legitimate interest, and we have never seen a proposal from them.”

Years, actually. Rumors of Frank Stronach taking an interest in New England racing have been floated since at least the early ’00s, when he sent a string of horses to Suffolk Downs. “We need a legitimate racetrack operator,” Lagorio said to the Boston Herald. “The answer to racing in Massachusetts for years to come is the Stronach Group.” The trainer was pushing a similar line in 2005, the year before the current Suffolk Downs ownership group took over:

“It’s a great track for Stronach,” Lagorio said, citing the money the gambling chief could make “resurrecting this track and making it a showplace.”

Some dreams die hard.


This post has been corrected. Please see the note at the end.

Plainridge Park’s new slots and video gaming parlor took in $6,154,626.38 during its first week of operation, or more than $703 for each of the 1,250 machines per day. Even considering opening week excitement and whatever pent-up local demand there might have been, that’s an impressive haul.

More than $6 million — that’s an incredible number … Plainridge is showing it can certainly compete with the existing casinos,” New England casino market expert Clyde Barrow tells the Boston Globe.

The nine percent of those revenues designated for the Race Horse Development Fund totaled $553,916.37; that’s $138,479 for harness racing, which takes place at Plainridge. I was going to insert a sentence or two here noting how much Plainridge handled on live racing during the same period, and maybe try to draw a conclusion from the slots-RDF-handle numbers, but tracking down harness handle figures turns out to make Thoroughbred racing look like a transparent, open industry. (Harness friends, any tips?)

So, let’s use 2014 numbers, taken from the racing office’s annual report (PDF): Last year, the track handled a total of $1,108,715 on-track on 82 race days, or $13,521 per card, and handled another $6,576,620 on its simulcast feed, for an average of $93,724 per card. Pull the Pocket does a bit of estimation/comparison:

Let’s say Plainridge does $100,000 in handle per card. At a low signal fee, let’s set revenue at 5% of that handle, which would mean the track and purses would drive $5,000 per card in revenue.

If they race three cards a week, that’s $15,000 in revenue.

$15,000 from racing, $567,000 from slots.

His conclusion: There’s no point to doing the work of growing handle when there’s so little payoff compared to the casino money. Plainridge is booked for 105 cards this year. Assuming they average about the same per card as last year, they’ll handle almost $10 million, while paying out approximately $4 million in purses (estimate based on averaged recent daily purse levels; in 2014, Plainridge paid $2.6 million in purses). There’s not much incentive to push casino patrons into betting on the local racing product either: The track’s portion of daily live handle runs roughly $1400 per card on-track, or about the gross on two slot machines.

1:35 PM Correction: This post was originally published using only the on-track handle total for 2014, which led to an incorrect conclusion re: daily revenue. This was because I did not include simulcasting handle, listed as “Export Simulcast” in the annual report. The post has been revised to include that figure, and the new and/or altered text is indicated in bold above.

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 Race Horse 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.


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 Race Horse 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.

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