Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Slots Legislation

100 Days or No Days

A view from Michigan on the news from Massachusetts and Maryland:

Now it is the Track Management’s that are finally coming under fire from the years and decades of rage that’s been building up from taking all this crud. And the Horsemen & Women have finally said ENOUGH.

We may die, but with us SO WILL YOU….

Now you know what they’ve felt like all those years of your threats. For once some are telling you what will be. For they will decide their future, not you.

Fiery.

I haven’t talked to anyone, on either side, in the dispute over the 2011 meet between Suffolk Downs and the NEHBPA who has framed negotiations as such an existential struggle, but there is an undeniable touch of the apocalyptic in the New England horsemen’s bargaining stance. What’s being fought over isn’t just the terms for one summer, it’s the very survival of Massachusetts racing.

When the horsemen charged in a fact-sheet posted to the NEHBPA website last week that Suffolk wasn’t negotiating with the intention of running a live meet this year, they made it clear they believed there was nothing less at stake.

From Suffolk’s perspective, the horsemen have also made it “clear that the HBPA’s position on the 2011 season is 100 days or no days at all,” wrote the track’s COO in a letter to the NEHBPA yesterday, in which he reaffirmed that Suffolk plans to race in 2011. “[W]e have been consistent about our intention to run a live meet in 2011 and still hope to do so.”

Days could be the sticking point. “From a breeding standpoint, we need a long meet,” New England Stallion Station owner Ken Posco told me yesterday. “I’m with the 100 days minimum.” I asked him why a shorter meet wouldn’t work for the local breeding program. “It will in time,” he replied, “if we get legislation for gaming.” Until then, it’s essential to protect racing as it exists.

That’s the horsemen’s position on days, and they want — not unreasonably — average daily purses at a level that will allow people to care for themselves and their horses. In 2010, horsemen raced without a contract; purse cuts last August left many feeling betrayed and vulnerable. A justifiable determination to avoid the same exposure this year suffuses their statements.

The problem is, as the handle and revenue numbers for the past four years released by Suffolk show, that there isn’t much of a market for 100 days of Massachusetts racing. Since 2007, total handle has dropped more than a third.

In my exchanges with NEHBPA lawyer Frank Frisoli, he’s expressed optimism that the recovering economy will keep 2011 numbers consistent with 2010, and been insistent on the horsemen’s demand for an equal simulcasting split, which would fund purses at the level (approximately $95,000 per day) horsemen seek in the proposal the group submitted to Suffolk last week.

But an equal split would mean less revenue for Suffolk, a tough sell to any business, and certainly so to a track that’s lost $40 million in four years. When I asked Frisoli about this, he replied, “Suffolk Downs controls its expenses.”

In abstract, 50-50 sounds fair. In reality, the horsemen are asking the track to cut back or operate at more of a loss this year for their benefit (a proposition that must seem less attractive to management each day simulcasting revenue is lost to blocked signals and nearby simulcasting parlors).

In our conversation, Posco summed up the situation, the issue at the root of the rest: “Without slots, there’ll be no racing or breeding in Massachusetts.”

It always comes back to slots. Without the prospect of expanded gaming, racing would have ended at Suffolk years ago. With it, though, perspectives skew toward an imagined slots-rich future. Instead of looking for ways to make racing better now, for all involved, the focus is on getting through another year, squeezing what there is from dwindling revenues for 100 days, hoping for a jackpot. The existence of Massachusetts racing depends on it.

Suffolk Blues

Barry Roos on the latest sign of New England racing’s decline:

Sadly it appears the end may be near for racing in New England. The HBPA is blocking the NYRA signal as no agreement was reached with the horsemen. After the worst meet in racing history and no extended gambling passed last year, I didn’t think there would be much chance of racing returning. I figured Suffolk would just fade away.

When live harness racing ceased at Rockingham Park last year, it went with a whimper. The same could happen at Suffolk Downs, the last link to a once great thoroughbred racing circuit. Neither the Boston Globe nor the Boston Herald published even a paragraph on the dispute between the New England horsemen and track management over 2011 purses and days that resulted in the NYRA signal being blocked. The horsemen allege negotiations not done in good faith (PDF), the track that the financial situation is grim:

“The unfortunate fact of the matter is that absent expanded gaming, the business model for 100 days of racing here is not sustainable,” said Chip Tuttle, Suffolk Downs chief operating officer. “The horsemen are having a very difficult time coming to grips with that.”

We’ve been here before with Suffolk. After the stakes schedule was cut in 2005, I posted a pessimistic piece melodramatically titled, “It’s Dying,” and worried about the inevitable end of thoroughbred racing in New England. The economics have only worsened since, but the track, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, still has found a way to open for racing each spring. Management has been betting on slots, and in 2010, thanks to intense lobbying and a state leadership largely in agreement on expanded gaming, their wager came tantalizingly close to paying off, before the bill foundered over the number of racinos the governor would approve.

A new casino bill was filed at the start of the 2011 state legislative session. The game’s still on, and I’m willing to bet, racing will be too, for another year.

Whether that’s good, at the likely purse level, is another matter. Suffolk is offering $75,000 per day for the state-mandated minimum of 100 days. The horsemen want $106,000, which Suffolk countered by offering reduced race dates. Daily purses of $75,000 would be the lowest on the East Coast, and the racing, for that sum or $106,000 per day, over 100 days or 67 days, is certain to be a reprise of last year’s bottom-level cards. That’s not only bad for bettors, it’s bad for the horses and humans on the backstretch.

Slots Losers

As maddening, petty, and inept as I found New York state politics during the four years I lived in Brooklyn — particularly when it came to anything having to do with the Aqueduct racino or OTB — the explanation for the ostensibly irrational often lay in asking, cui bono? Because someone was usually, pretty nakedly, making out in campaign cash, political power, or patronage jobs. Not so in Massachusetts state politics, which are no less maddening, etc., for reasons that more often seem opaque, personal, or tribal.

Take, for instance, the apparently dead expanded gaming legislation. Never before, in almost two decades of debate, has Massachusetts come so close to allowing casinos and racinos. In the final hours of the legislative session on July 31, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill authorizing three casinos and two racetrack slots licenses. The Senate approved the same, two votes shy of a veto-proof margin. The governor, up for re-election, said he’d accept three casinos (his original stance), but only one racino, a compromise position he then backed off, returning the final bill with an amendment effectively killing racetrack slots. Explained Patrick of his reversal:

“We do this over and over again in the Commonwealth: We yield to the short-term interests of a few powerful people, and we set aside the long-term, best economic and social interests of the Commonwealth.”

(Let’s have a little fun with Deval Patrick’s campaign speak:

“We do this over and over again in [politics]: We yield to the short-term interests of [the upcoming election cycle], and we set aside the long-term, best economic and social interests of the [citizens].”

That really was too easy.)

There are those holding out hope that the legislature will be called back into session and that a resolution will be reached. I’d price that happening as a longshot so long the tote board tops out at 99-1. House leader Robert DeLeo — whose district includes Suffolk Downs and Wonderland, and who’s expended tremendous political capital accomplishing more than anyone ever has on the issue — has dug in, insisting on two racinos. “Asking me to go further than that is truly unreasonable,” he told the Boston Globe. Senate president Therese Murray is skeptical a deal could be reached, and quietly, stubbornly opposes calling lawmakers back.

Meanwhile, Plainridge, the state’s sole harness track, has already announced layoffs. Suffolk Downs has made no statements, but the rumors about the track’s future are wild and ominous.

Cui bono? No one.

2:45 PM Addendum: Tweets @jenmontfort, “It’s just so disappointing to be so close and to let political tomfoolery (on ALL sides) get in the way.” Exactly. And yet, it’s hardly surprising. This is the state, after all, where tomfoolery once led to the simulcasting law expiring on the eve of the Florida Derby.