Jessica Chapel / Railbird

New England

Way Back, In the 1970s

For $800:

Donnally confessed that he had every intention of finishing out of the money but was having trouble doing so because so many other jockeys were also restraining their horses.

New England racing, the Winter Hill gang, and one jockey’s story.

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Suffolk Downs notes: The Boston Globe profiles developer Richard Fields, “the track’s charismatic public face and largest shareholder” … Andria Terrill has been released from the hospital. The rider suffered three small skull fractures in an on-track accident on July 8 … Multiple stakes-placed Convocation (2nd, 2011 Westchester; 2nd, 2009 Suburban; 2nd, 2009 Dwyer) is entered for a $4,000 tag in the first race on Wednesday. It’s the 7-year-old gelding’s first start since finishing fourth at Belmont on May 9, when Trainer David Jacobson claimed him for $15,000. He’s had three works in the interim, none stellar, and is 9-5 on the morning line. [7/17/13: Convocation scratched.]

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!

“Sink or Swim”

Lynne Snierson on the latest in the Suffolk Downs-NEHBPA dispute:

The general counsel for the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association said on the afternoon of Feb. 28 that negotiations have reached the “sink or swim” point on a contract resolution for 2011. The dispute is now in its sixth week.

“We have been in discussions today and they will continue on into the night,” said Frank Frisoli. “Suffolk talked to us and addressed the board (of directors). We are at the sink or swim point right now. I expect to be able to comment more on where we are tomorrow (March 1).”

Also noted: Massachusetts bettors crowded Rockingham this past weekend.

The Offer That Isn’t

While waiting on the next twist in the ongoing dispute over the 2011 meet between Suffolk Downs and the NEHBPA, I’d like to return to a point in the modified offer approved by the horsemen on Friday that didn’t make much sense. The group agreed to race 80 days, as the track proposed, if legislation to approve a race date reduction passed — if it didn’t, the horsemen agreed to race 100 days for the same total purses offered of $8.25 million.

The problem is that such a structure would bring average daily purses down to $82,500, the same level at which Suffolk calculated the horsemen’s February 10 proposal, based on revenue projections, and the reason the track rejected that offer — the figure was too close to the daily average of $79,000 being paid during the latter portion of the 2010 meet. Both sides agree an average in that range is too low to support racing, suggesting that the horsemen are now trying to have it both ways — the group concedes the 80 days, and the likelihood of the legislation it cannot agree to not oppose succeeding, even as it attempts to compel the track to run 100 days.

“The NEHBPA voted to accept a proposal that was never offered,” said a source close to the discussions. Suffolk specifically told the NEHBPA, said the source, that the $8.25 million was not in play for 100 days.

Which raises questions of what the horsemen’s gambit — described by the source as “cynical” — is meant to accomplish, and where discussions go from here. “The framework of this deal is essentially solving problems for the future,” NEHBPA lawyer Frank Frisoli said on Friday. That’s a hopeful assessment, one track management clearly doesn’t share. “The increase in purses was contingent upon one condition, neutrality on legislation to reduce the number of days required to simulcast, that the NEHBPA is unwilling to meet,” said Suffolk’s vice president of marketing and communications, Christian Teja, responding to the offer. “We will assess all our options, including legislative relief independent of the HBPA.”

Suffolk doesn’t need to the horsemen’s approval to pursue its legislative agenda; the track doesn’t even need the horsemen’s agreement to run fewer dates. The state-mandated minimum is what’s required for the track to simulcast — Suffolk could announce a 30-day meet on Monday, so long as it was willing to cease simulcasting. As might be expected, the horsemen disagree. Because the MRC awarded Suffolk 100 days this year and it has been simulcasting, “The NEHBPA firmly believes SSR is now obligated under state law to conduct a live meet of at least 100 days of live racing,” the group notes in its February 25 proposal before agreeing to reduced days.

The situation is now quite uncertain. Suffolk offered $8.25 million for 75-80 days, plus five more days if handle was near what was it was last year by June 30, and a 50-50 simulcasting revenue split. It all hinged on neutrality — on the NEHBPA agreeing not to oppose the legislation that would make 80 days possible. The horsemen agreed on the 50-50 split, which they had sought from the start, and because they could not accept the no-opposition provision, to $8.25 million for 80 days, if a bill passes, or 100 days, which many still hope to run. It’s an impossible position, nodding to the economic and political realities of Massachusetts racing, but asserting a demand that nothing change.

Unaminously Accepted

Could the dispute be nearing an end? Late Thursday, the NEHBPA board voted to reject a proposal for the 2011 meet made by Suffolk Downs. “As it was written,” said Frank Frisoli, clarifying that the group could not accept the offer with its request that the horsemen not oppose state legislation reducing race dates. “We can’t abrogate our members’ right of free speech,” said the lawyer, explaining the horsemen’s opposition to the provision. “And we are not going to take any position supporting [Suffolk's] legislative agenda.”

Modifying the offer to exclude that request, the NEHBPA board unanimously accepted the track’s proposal, agreeing to total purses offered of $8.25 million and an equal simulcasting revenue split. The horsemen have even agreed to race 80 days if the legislature approves a bill allowing Suffolk to run fewer than 100 days. If days are not reduced, then the horsemen will race for 100 days for the same purses.* “We’ve essentially accepted their position,” said Frisoli. The modified proposal has been submitted to Suffolk, and will be published on the New England horsemen’s website at some time. Until it is, I’ve posted a copy of the press release (PDF) here.

More on today’s developments from Steve Myrick in the Thoroughbred Times.

4:45 PM Addendum: What horseplayers want to know: When do the signals return? And, because I’ve commented a few times before that the horsemen have not acknowledged the effect of the dispute on racing fans, I have to point out that the NEHBPA proposal does just that on page two: “There is no doubt that this impasse has also inconvenienced the patrons who wager and support horseracing.” Appreciate the mention, even belated.

6:15 PM Update: Don’t head to Suffolk on Saturday expecting Aqueduct. Responding to the offer from the horsemen, Suffolk Downs vice president of marketing and communications Christian Teja said, “We’ve made several concessions in the interest of having a quality meet this year, including keeping the barn area open for 30 weeks and paying over $100,000 in daily purses at the request of the NEHBPA. The increase in purses was contingent upon one condition, neutrality on legislation to reduce the number of days required to simulcast, that the NEHBPA is unwilling to meet. We will assess all our options, including legislative relief independent of the HBPA.”

2/26/11 Addendum: Suffolk Downs, NEHBPA “far apart on a key issue,” reports Lynne Snierson. “In my mind, we’re very close,” Frisoli said yesterday.

*If the horsemen were to race 100 days for $8.25 million, however, that would bring the average daily purses down to the level both sides agreed was too low to support racing. I assume they’re gambling on the race day reduction.

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