JC / Railbird

Massachusetts

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.

Competing

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-RHDF-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.

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