JC / Railbird

New England

For the Patron

More details from Thursday’s New England HBPA horse park presentation:

Brad Boaz, of the Lexington, Kentucky-based architectural and engineering firm CMW, gave an overview of the “Massachusetts Horse Park” master plan, as well as presented some hard numbers, during a press conference Thursday in Boston.

“Keeping the horse in mind is paramount, but also for the patron as well,” Mr. Boaz said. “We want to keep them coming back.”

The horse park, proposed by the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, would be at least 200 acres and feature a horseracing complex, an “agri-tourism village” and equestrian venues …

“We don’t feel like it’s this massive structure. It’s very quaint. It’s very inviting,” Mr. Boaz said. “What we’re trying to do is take little features from some of our most favorite tracks.”

Saratoga was apparently cited as a model.

The Bottom Line

The State House News Service reported on Tuesday that a section of the 2018 budget proposal in the Massachusetts state senate would sweep $15 million from the Race Horse Development Fund into the state general fund:

“It’s just been sitting there,” Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka said of the Race Horse Development Fund money Tuesday. “That’s where we give some of the increases to (the Department of Environmental Protection) and (the Department of Conservation and Recreation). We use it for conservation and recreation, consistent with the original purpose.”

Spilka added on Wednesday:

“Much of the fund’s assets have remained unused, and given the state’s tight fiscal situation, we direct the money to protect and enhance our natural resources for the benefit of residents across Massachusetts.”

This development is no surprise. With Thoroughbred racing scheduled for six days this year and the recent sale of Suffolk Downs putting a likely end to any racing after 2018, there’s a growing pool of money in the RHDF with nowhere to go. The fund, collecting 9% of the slots revenue at Plainridge, had a balance of approximately $15.6 million through April. Last month, a Boston Globe editorial called for a new mission for the RHDF millions:

When the casino law was passed, allies of the racing industry tried to spin the fund as something other than a special-interest giveaway by claiming it served the broader public interest in preserving open space on horse farms.

If preservation is really Beacon Hill’s concern, though, it would make more sense to follow the suggestion of State Representative Bradley H. Jones, a Republican from North Reading, who last year proposed redirecting some of the horse racing money into community preservation funding for municipalities. Community Preservation Act money can be used for open space, affordable housing, and historic preservation; local dollars are supposed to be matched with state money, but the state’s contribution has been declining in recent years and will be stretched even thinner now that Boston voted to join the program …

Jones’s proposal would be a step in the right direction, but the state’s ultimate goal should be to wean horse racing off state support completely. The collapse of horse racing has inflicted undeniable pain on many workers in Massachusetts, and they deserve the Commonwealth’s full support making a transition to more viable jobs. But simply paying them to run horses in front of ever-shrinking crowds — at Suffolk Downs, in New York, or anywhere else — is not a long-term economic policy.

In 2016, WBUR and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting took a closer look at the RHDF and its (lack of) effect on Massachusetts Thoroughbred racing and breeding, finding it wanting:

A review of the fund’s work by The Eye and WBUR public radio has found scant gains in breeding race horses, a schedule of racing that continues to be limited, and growing infighting among industry factions that has tried the patience of the fund’s overseers.

And I wrote in 2014 that the legislature would come for the RHDF.

Much like last year’s revised split that increased standardbreds’ share of the RHDF from 25% to 55% — Plainridge is running 125 days with average daily purses of $60K and a $250,000 stakes race in 2017 thanks to the boost — the proposed appropriation in the 2018 budget bill is being sold as a temporary way to put the fund to use — it’s for one fiscal year only — except that legislators, whether or not the budget passes as currently written, aren’t likely to forget that the RHDF money is there. The fund will become an even more tempting target for raids when the Springfield MGM casino opens in 2018 and a percent of its revenue begins to swell the RHDF.

New England HBPA executives promise to fight the proposed appropriation:

The New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, for example, makes the case that the money in the fund was intended to promote horse racing. What better way to promote horse racing than to promote a horse park with a track, officials said.

“When we look at that money in the Horse Race Development Fund, we see 1,000 jobs and the preservation of open space,” said Paul Umbrello, executive director of the horsemen’s association. “We will fight the transfer.”

The NEHBPA continues to push their horse park plan; they propose to build a new racetrack and equestrian center in Spencer, a small town in central Massachusetts that’s off the Mass Pike but more than an hour from Boston. It’s a longshot. The Boston Herald blasted the plan a few weeks ago:

Now, silly us for raising a question like this, but if Suffolk Downs couldn’t make a go of thoroughbred racing a stone’s throw from downtown Boston, why on earth would the state want to invest its money in such a venture, say in maybe a town like Spencer?

It was, after all, Sen. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer) who filed a bill to divert money from the fund to a horse race park, while acknowledging that the racing industry is “on life support.”

“This is an opportunity to support the entire industry,” she added. “We have to do something because it’s going and once it’s gone it’s not coming back.”

And calling horse racing an “industry” does not make it so.

“We just want to say we want to take X percentage of that fund to build and support, as a bridge gap, the horse park,” Umbrello said. “Once we’re up and running it’s going to be self-sufficient.”

Like we’ve never heard that one before!

Until lawmakers find a better use for the racing fund it will continue to attract nutty schemes like this one.

(My initial reaction to the NEHBPA plan when it was laid out last summer.)

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission declined to comment earlier this week, but chairman Stephen Crosby told the Globe last month that while:

he supported legislation that would reform the horse racing industry and give it a better chance of success in Massachusetts … taking away the fund would be the “death knell” for racing in the Commonwealth.

The death knell is sounding — the obstacles to the NEHBPA horse park are substantial, Brockton is not viable, and the state of the larger racing industry is against new construction or a new track operator entering Massachusetts.

8:00 PM Addendum: The NEHBPA pitched the horse park to reporters in an event this afternoon, Bruce Mohl reports in CommonWealth:

Brian Hickey, the association’s lobbyist and the host of Thursday’s presentation, said the group would like to see the law changed so the money in the Horse Race Development Fund could be used to directly support the state’s horse-racing industry. He estimated a couple hundred thousand dollars would be needed for the horse park feasibility study, and indicated more of the money would be needed if the horse park itself moves forward. He said revenues from simulcasting races from around the country could also be used to support the park.

More to come …

The King Is Dead

Carlos Figueroa's King of the Fairs sign on his Suffolk Downs barn

If you know the name Carlos Figueroa, you’re probably a New England racing fan. The trainer most associated with the defunct Massachusetts fair circuit died at age 88 on Tuesday at his home in Salem, New Hampshire. He had been recently ill. “His wife, Pearl, reportedly went to wake him, but could not.”

You could call Figueroa “colorful” — he had a flair for attracting attention wherever he went. Lynne Snierson passes along a characteristic story:

[Michael] Blowen, who labored in the barn for two years without ever seeing a paycheck, has many fond memories of his former mentor and holds him close in his heart.

“We have a horse here at Old Friends named Summer Atttraction, who I think just turned 23, that I owned. Carlos ran him as a 2-year-old in a two-furlong maiden race at Suffolk Downs in a four-horse field in 1997 on a big day. One of the other horses was owned by Jim Moseley (Suffolk’s late track owner and a prominent owner and breeder) and that horse cost over $200,000. Summer Attraction, whom I paid $5,000 for, won.

“So Carlos decided to next run him at Saratoga in the Sanford (G3). The race came up so tough that Favorite Trick (eventual 2-year-old champion and 1997 Horse of the Year) scratched out of it.

“In the paddock, the reporters all wanted to talk to Carlos even though Nick Zito, Wayne Lukas, and the other big-time trainers were there with their horses. Carlos told them, ‘If my horse wins, they’re going to rename the race Sanford & Son.’ My horse ran two furlongs and stopped cold. That story sums up The King.”

Blowen* captured Figueroa for the Boston Globe in 1982:

Trainer Carlos Figueroa, wearing a panama hat and a red polo shirt, is standing on top of a yellow tractor on the infield shouting at the top of his lungs, “Quatro, quatro, quatro,” as the horses in the eighth race at the Three County Fair in Northampton turn for home.

This is no ordinary race. It is the second leg of the Lancer’s Triple Crown, a series of races running from late August through late September that is as important to Figueroa as the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont are to Woody Stevens. And the horseman is trying to scream home his entry, Icy Defender, No. 4.

“Of course this race is important,” said Figueroa, as he strolled through the backstretch earlier that morning. “It’s the Triple Crown of the fairs. But I’m not in it for the money, I want the fame. Fame.”

Figueroa, who looks as if he could play Juan Peron in “Evita,” won the first leg two weeks earlier at the Marshfield Fair with Cheers n’ Tears, a 5-year-old who worked his way down the Suffolk Downs claiming ladder from $6500 on the Fourth of July to $3000 on Aug. 9. He received his trophy and had his picture taken by the track photographer just a few hours before the lady mud wrestlers and fireworks display took over the infield.

“I like records,” he said, while checking Cheers n’ Tears’ foreleg. “That’s why I want to win today. I have two horses in the race — this one and Icy Defender. I want to be the first one to win the Triple Crown.”

It was a horse named Shannon’s Hope that made Figueroa’s legend. Robert Temple tells the story in his book “The Pilgrims Would Be Shocked“:

… in 1963 Figueroa entered … Shannon’s Hope a total of eight times in 13 days and won five straight at distances from about 5 furlongs to about 6 1/2 furlongs.

The saga of Shannon’s Hope began August 12 when he finished fifth at the Weymouth Fair. The next day he finished third and two days later he was fourth. Then Shannon’s Hope began his hot streak. He won closing day at Weymouth on August 17 and moved to the Marshfield Fair on August 20 where he was a five length winner. He then won at Marshfield on three successive days (August 22-24) by a total of nine lengths.

Talk about durability. Shannon’s Hope ran a total of 309 races, winning 29 of them for total winnings of $39,848. When I asked Figueroa … why he entered Shannon’s Hope so often he replied, “He just like to run, run, run.”

In 1999, the trainer was suspended by the Suffolk Downs stewards for 90 days and fined $500 after a horse named Watral’s Winnebug tested positive for cocaine. The suspension was later shortened to 45 days by the state racing commission. Figueroa defended his innocence, telling the Globe:

“I know how to train horses,” said Figueroa, who was represented by attorney Frank McGee. “I don’t need cocaine to make horses run. I’m a good horse trainer. Cocaine is no good to me. Horses run on good food, a good trainer, and a good jockey.”

The state racing commission cited his reputation and record — he had never been suspended before — as a reason for reducing his days. “I don’t think he had anything to to do with [the positive],” said one of the commissioners.

Figueroa, “a fixture at Suffolk since the 1950s,” started his last horse at the East Boston track on November 13, 2010. His career stats on Equibase only go back to 1976 — between that year and his retirement, he won 846 races from 9,841 starts, earning more than $4.1 million.

T.D. Thornton remembers:

For anyone who knew Figueroa at Rockingham Park and Suffolk Downs, the two main tracks at which he was stabled for decades, conversations with “King Carlos” often involved being shouted at in heavily accented English while trying to avoid his wildly gesticulating arms. He was forever phoning the Suffolk press box with good-natured demands for publicity and press coverage, and Figueroa liked to regale anyone who would listen with outlandish, difficult-to-document claims, like the time he allegedly singled all the winners in the very first Pick Six in the country when Rockingham offered the bet in the 1960s.

Here’s one more story:

*In a 2000 column for the Globe, Blowen’s wife, Diane White, recounts the deal Figueroa made with him when he went to work for the trainer:

“You are a student at Figueroa University,” he told Michael, “and you are on scholarship.”

The Rock

Rockingham Park gate in 2006
Rockingham Park gate, 2006

Reflecting on the end of Rockingham Park:

“It’s one of those places, like the house you grew up in, that you think will always be there. It’s so strange and sad to find out that it’s really going to be gone,” said Donna Barton Brothers, who was an apprentice in Rockingham’s jockey colony in 1987 before she went on to become one of the sport’s most successful female riders and an on-air analyst and reporter for NBC Sports and TVG.

“That track was where I cut my teeth as far as riding goes,” she said. “I learned so much about riding there from people like Phil Ernst and Bennie Carrasco and some of those really good, old riders like Carl Gambardella and Rudy Baez, who for whatever reason ended up at Rockingham. I rode with some world class riders.”

Speaking of the greats, old black-and-white photos of Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longdon, and Bill Shoemaker still adorn the walls of Rockingham’s clubhouse from their time here. Pat Day hung his tack in the jocks’ room when he was a bug, and Chris McCarron to this day is revered as the local kid who made good.

Trainer Shug McGaughey won his first race at Rockingham and fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel captured the one and only $500,000 New England Classic with Marquetry in 1991 as part of the nationally televised American Championship Racing Series.

The track, which hasn’t hosted live racing since 2010, will close permanently on August 31, following a sale of its remaining 120 acres. “So the simulcasting, the poker room, the shows will all be done at that point in time,” [general manager Ed] Callahan said. “We’ll get things cleaned up a little bit, have an auction here of a whole bunch of equipment and furniture and memorabilia.” For those concerned about the fate of any remaining historical items or archival materials, note that, per a report in the Blood-Horse:

[T]he racing memorabilia, trophies, and artwork with the greatest historical significance will be donated to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, the New England Sports Museum, and the New Hampshire Museum of History, among others.

The auction is scheduled for September 24 and 25, time TBD.

Searching for a Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two links to leave with —

Jen Montfort stands up for Suffolk Downs:

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

And Bill Finley says goodbye:

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

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

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

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