JC / Railbird

Plainridge

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.

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.

Postponed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening Day

If you’re a fan of Thoroughbred racing, or anyone affiliated with Thoroughbred racing, in Massachusetts, then today is probably a bittersweet day, emphasis on the bitter — the state’s first slots parlor opens this afternoon at Plainridge, the state’s sole harness track. “The casino is projecting $20 million a month in gaming revenue.” Nine percent of that revenue will flow into the 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.

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.)