JC / Railbird

Suffolk Downs

Left Out

Display promoting the proposed New England HBPA horse park

Let’s talk about the New England HBPA proposal for a non-profit horse park, a multi-use complex comprising a racetrack, an equestrian center, and a retirement farm. The group released a feasibility study authored by the Center for Economic Development at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst late last week (PDF), which concluded that such a facility — a “truly unique” model — would have an annual economic impact of $98.9 million on the Massachusetts economy. More than $66 million would come from the Thoroughbred racetrack, $31.7 million from the equestrian center. More details about the equestrian center and the proposal’s numbers can be found in the Blood-Horse and Daily Racing Form articles about the study.

I’m a racing fan, and what I most want to know — when Suffolk Downs is gone, and the horse park is where I have to go to get my local racing fix — is what the racing will be like. The study sketches out a simple vision:

Page 4 —

[The economic impact totals] are built on the following assumptions: 75 racing days during a typical season between May and October; 9 races per day; 800 horses in residence throughout the season; an average of 3,000 spectators per race day; and an out-of-state attendance rate of 20 percent.

Page 7 —

The center will feature a one-mile dirt oval racetrack designed for the safest possible racing of Thoroughbred horses for a 60-90 day season per year. This track could also serve as a venue for Standardbred horse racing if there is interest. Within the oval is a 7/8 mile turf course. Overlooking the track will be a viewing stand capable of seating 4,000 patrons. Within this facility will be restaurants and local wagering areas.

Page 25 —

We estimate that the new facility will attract 225,000 spectators per year … [have a] relatively smaller grandstand … a typical racing day will draw somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 visitors, while special events (such as the MassCap) can draw up to 10,000. [The MassCap lives!]

Page 29 —

We assume that the present purse subsidies and breeding program established under the Expanded Gaming Act of 2011 will continue in their present form.

Page 30 —

[Purse and breeder incentives] will likely increase the share of Massachusetts horses racing at the new track. We use the conservative estimate that 400 active horses (or half of the assumed 800 horses on-site) will be from Massachusetts. In time, we expect an even larger share of horses racing at the new racetrack will be from in state …

So, a conventional track (aside: if you’re building a new racetrack “designed for the safest possible racing of Thoroughbred horses,” shouldn’t the main track be a turf course?), with a smaller grandstand (realistic) and a lot of Mass-bred racing supported by Race Horse Development Fund-subsidized purses.

This is an underwhelming vision, and that matters because Massachusetts racing and breeding is not isolated from the larger national market, and because financing the horse park development will depend on bonds backed by the state’s Race Horse Development Fund (legislation pending). There’s compelling public interest, in other words, in proposing a racetrack that reaches for the highest level, in the same way that the proposal does for the equestrian center, described in the report as “a first-class facility,” “capable of hosting elite national events.” Modeled on the Virginia Horse Center and Kentucky Horse Park, it’s supported by a Rolex Kentucky case study.

No racetrack case study is included in the report. There isn’t even an aspirational mention of an elite track such as Keeneland or Saratoga — although, as models, both have something to offer a new track proposal, particularly in what they do to draw spectators (one of the goals of the horse park) and to support state breeding programs and horse sales (another goal).

I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m down on the NEHBPA proposal — it’s interesting and full of potential, especially for drawing together equestrian and racing interests. But it’s an odd thing to read a study promoting a horse park for the good of horse racing (and breeding and jobs) that makes you wonder — why is there horse racing? And gives you the answer — because that’s the mechanism for accessing Race Horse Development Fund money. Horses race because the RDF pays, the RDF pays to keep horses racing. There’s no customer, no horseplayer, and no fan or handle growth in that perfect little circle of horsemen and state money. It’s not enough.

One other note about the study — page 30 discusses the sale of Mass-breds, and projects that out of the increased crop:

… the remaining 10 percent of foals are sold out-of-state at the national average auction price. Over the past three years, the average sale price from two-year old horses was approximately $70,000 per horse according to statistics from the U.S. Jockey Club. Thus, we include an addition $805,000 per year for expanded out-of-state horse sales.

Average prices being skewed by the market’s top end, the median price may be a better measure of how Mass-breds might do at auction. For 2-year-old horses in the past three years, the median has run around $31,000-$32,000, which would equal approximately $364,205 in expanded out-of-state sales.

1:15 PM Addition: Pedigree and sales expert Sid Fernando tweeted* about the sales assumptions in the study, adding some context to the discussion:

using a 2yo sale for projecting sales is not realistic. A yearling sale should be used, because 2yo sales are specialist events.

no one, in other words, breeds horses to sell at 2yo sales. Sellers of 2yos are usually second owners of horses.

usually state programs stimulate capital expenditure (buying stallions) by creating sire awards as adjunct to breeder awards…

…this, in turn, means more stud farms, more mares and more foals. State-bred foals are not typically commercial and have most…

…to horsemen in those programs because they race in restricted races. This stimulates local industry, for sure, but not…

…necessarily quality of horses produced because they are mostly the produce of local stallions. I think authors of paper didn’t

…have enough expertise to explain the mechanisms of all of this, good and bad, real and perceived.

economic impact to state must also capture amount of time mares are in state, for example. If a mare is sent to KY to be bred and

and returns by October, say, to qualify her resulting foal as MA-bred, that’s a mare 5 months out of state vs a mare bred to …

…local stallion. That’s why states incentivize local stallions, to keep mares in state.

He also pointed out:

btw, one area where [the study authors] underestimated economic impact: they said extra 115 foals would mean extra 115 mares, but in state …

programs fertility rates are about 50-55%, so need to effectively double mares to get 115 foals.

Additional mares would boost the estimated job and farm spending figures.

*Fernando’s account is private. He gave permission to quote the tweets above.

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.

The East Boston Connection

Furthering my half-joking homer theory that everyone in American racing has a connection to Suffolk Downs is this story of jockey Edgar Prado:

In 1988, one of Bob Klesaris’ jockeys at Boston’s Suffolk Downs was suspended. Too aggressive a ride, too tight, the trainer was told. Klesaris challenged the decision. It was his first appeal at the racecourse. He was confident the stewards would see, as he did, that his jockey was “100 percent in the right.”

They didn’t, and when Klesaris returned to the barn area, he spotted the offending jockey.

“Listen, I’m going to send you to Maryland,” he recalled telling him.

Edgar Prado, who over the next decade in the state would become its leading jockey six times, turned to Klesaris. Not knowing much about the nation’s geography, he asked: “What country is that?”

Suffolk racing returns for the first of three weekends this year on July 9-10.

Mario DeStefano, RIP

It was with sadness that I read on the New England HBPA website that trainer Mario DeStefano died at age 78 on Saturday, January 10. From his obituary:

Mario began his teaching career at LaSalle Academy in Providence followed by over thirty years as a History teacher, coach and athletic director in the Providence School System. He projected his love of wrestling through his coaching and refereeing in the RI Wrestling Community.

Mario’s love of horses was his greatest source of enjoyment. Since the 1960s he had been involved with thoroughbred racing in the New England area. As an avid horse Owner/Trainer he was well known in RI, at Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park horse communities. He was a past president of the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

Mario did not enjoy a reputation around the track as an easy person; I don’t think it’s speaking ill of the dead to say that he could be irascible and morose. But I knew Mario as a teacher, and as a teacher, he was generous and patient.

I met him during the 2004 Suffolk Downs meet, when I was a new racing fan and he had a chestnut gelding named Ascot Doll who I liked. I introduced myself to him in the grandstand one afternoon. “Come by the barn,” he said. I did, the next morning, and the next, and the next, and then he put me to work. The job was hotwalking and the pay was $200 for six days a week, plus lunch on race days. I thought this was a pretty good deal, because I knew almost nothing about horses and wanted to know more.

Mario started me slowly, walking the two quietest of his six horses. He spooled out responsibilities as I grew more comfortable in the barn. Working with Marco, the groom, I learned to mix feed, feel for heat, pick feet, and wrap legs. I learned how to rub a horse, and how to hold my hand against its flank so that I could feel a horse picking up its foot while I wasn’t looking, guarding against a kick. Mario was quick with corrections when necessary, and he was always clear and direct. He answered questions the same way.

He was also a careful observer of horses and humans. “Look at this,” he’d say to me, and point out a subtle sign of soreness in a horse, or a handler being rough. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from Mario was that the way to be with a horse was confident and calm, that fear and anger didn’t belong.

He was soft with his horses. Call Me Mr. Vain, a kind, classy gelding and the winningest horse of 2003, was then in Mario’s barn, recovering from a tendon injury. I remember a trainer once telling Mario that he treated Mr. Vain too much like a pet. And one morning, another trainer stopped by to yell that he had to get “rid” of one, because “he’s a rat.” Mario yelled back and chased the guy off. Then he took the so-called rat — Ascot Doll, nursing a bum ankle — out of his stall for his daily walk around the backstretch. My clearest memory of that summer is of the pair of them standing near the gap watching horses train in the rosy morning light, Ascot Doll lazily flicking his ears and tail, Mario’s hands dropped low, the shank hanging loosely from his fingers.

Increased Purses, Reduced Takeout

Citing the success of their September 5 program, Suffolk Downs announced the addition of a stakes race, purse increases for Mass-bred stakes, and promoted reduced takeout of 15% for all wagers on the October 3 card.

Saturday’s Suffolk Return

Live horse racing returns to Suffolk Downs this Saturday, the first of three days scheduled this fall at the East Boston track, with a 13-race card worth $507,500 in purses that drew 111 entries. One race is over hurdles, five are on turf, three are Massachusetts-bred stakes, and two are written for horses who started at least once at Suffolk Downs in 2014. First post is 12:30 PM ET.

Horses with local connections fill the fields — a full 77 starters are state-breds, ran at the track last year, or are owned or trained by familiar names, including Jay Bernardini and Bobby Raymond. Last year’s leading rider David Amiss is back, as is jockey Tammi Piermarini, who has 10 mounts, including for trainers Christophe Clement, Gary Contessa, and David Jacobson.

In the state-bred stakes: 2014 Rise Jim winner Victor Laszlo returns to defend his title, as does 2014 Isadorable winner Doublicious in that race. Plausible, winner of the 2014 Norman Hall, starts in the African Prince.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission approved on Thursday a reduction in Suffolk Downs’ takeout rates. All wagers on the October 3 and 31 cards — but not on this Saturday’s card — will be 15%, down from 19% on straight bets and 26% on exotics. Matt Hegarty raises the possibility that simulcasting sites may balk at the drop. “It’s certainly a concern,” Lou Raffeto told him:

… when asked whether simulcast sites will bite the bullet. “I think they will, because it’s in the best interests of the horseplayers. And really it’s not like we’re Saratoga or Del Mar, running all summer. It’s two days. It shouldn’t be a big deal.”

With luck, this little horseplayer-friendly experiment will goose some interest.

MGC Grants Suffolk Days

We haven’t seen the last of live racing at Suffolk Downs yet. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission voted 4-1 on Thursday to approve the track’s application to host three days of racing on September 5, October 3, and October 31. It also approved a request for $1.2 million in purse monies from the Race Horse Development Fund to support daily purses of $500,000. Conditions are on Equibase, and include stakes for Massachusetts-bred horses and races written for horses who started at the East Boston track in 2014.

Suffolk Dates on MGC Agenda

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission takes up Suffolk Downs’ application for three days of living racing this year once again on Thursday — a vote on the three-day plan and a discussion of the 2016 racing season are on the agenda for the MGC meeting that begins at 10:30 AM. The track is amending its requested dates to September 5, October 3, and October 31.

Lynne Snierson reports for the Blood-Horse that there will be no lease deal with the Stronach Group to run a full meet at Suffolk Downs — the scenario sketched by trainer Billy Lagorio at the Commission’s meeting two weeks ago, prompting a delay on the application then:

“I can say definitively that we will not have an arrangement whereby The Stronach Group will lease or operate racing here,” Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle told the Blood-Horse Aug. 5.

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group and a Boston native who began his career as a jockey at the once-thriving New England tracks, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Tuttle and Ritvo talked on July 29 about any potential Stronach Group interest in running racing in East Boston. They had no further discussion. Ritvo did speak with the Boston Globe for a July 30 article, politely shutting down the idea of a Stronach-managed meet in the near future. “Boston is a very lucrative market and we’re interested,” he told reporter Sean Murphy. “We’re open to anything, but it seems like a stretch to get it done immediately.”

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.

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