Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Suffolk Downs

The Price to Pay

It’s over. The years-long pursuit of Suffolk Downs for expanded gaming — first, for casino legislation in Massachusetts, then for one of the three resort casino licenses authorized by the Commonwealth in 2011 — came to an end on Tuesday when the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, by a vote of 3-1, awarded the Boston-area license to Wynn, which proposed a $1.6 billion project on a former industrial site (with questionable ownership) in Everett, instead of Mohegan Sun, which proposed to build a $1.3 billion complex on land leased from the track. With the decision, the track will close.

You bet, I’m disappointed. Suffolk Downs was where I became a racing fan 11 years ago. It was where I learned to handicap, and how to handle a horse, and it’s been the track I thought of as home, even during the four years I lived in New York. And my connection — well, it’s nothing compared to the connections forged by the horsemen and track workers who have made their lives around the place, sometimes over generations, sticking with it through rough years and holding out hope that better times would come with a casino.

Devastating is the word for what’s happening to the hundreds who will be laid off after the meet closes on September 29, and for those who will be forced out of the work that is, for some, all they’ve known. “Not everyone is cut out for the Innovation Economy, and the people who work here embody that,” Suffolk COO Chip Tuttle said in an interview with WBUR after the decision. “So we’ve got some very hard-working but low-skilled folks here for whom this is going to be an incredibly difficult transition.”

Speaking to that issue, raised by a reporter during the press conference that followed the official license award ceremony this morning, Commissioner James McHugh — the only one to vote for the Mohegan Sun at Suffolk Downs proposal — said that he and the other commissioners were aware of the “sadness” felt by Thoroughbred racing supporters following the decision for Wynn, and that track workers wouldn’t be forgotten. “They’re good people, it’s a good industry,” he said, “and we’re going to do all we can to assist them.”

That’s a nice sentiment, even if it sounds a bit hollow the day after rejecting Mohegan Sun’s bid. Had the proposal been successful, the lease arrangement could have been lucrative — according to figures cited by Commissioner Enrique Zuniga and reported in CommonWealth:

Suffolk Downs would receive rent payments of about $35 million a year that could rise to between $75 million and $85 million a year based on the gross revenues of the casino operation. Zuniga also said Suffolk Downs had put up $70 million in equity in the casino and stands to receive more than 5 percent of any distributions to the owners of the facility.

With those payments, and 75% of the money from the state’s Racehorse Development Fund (a percentage of casino and slots licensing fees and revenues set aside for purses, breeding, and backstretch support) due Suffolk, track officials had committed to racing for another 15 years and outlined a plan for $40 million in facilities improvements.

Now? There might be mixed-use development. “It’s a unique opportunity. The imagination can run wild a bit,” a developer told the Boston Herald:

Begelfer said … the Eastie-Revere site could mimic the once derelict, now trendy Seaport District. The former racetrack could host affordable middle-class housing as well office space for tech startups being priced out of Cambridge.

Or maybe a soccer stadium will take the track’s place.

I guess that’s progress, and better land use, and makes sense given trends in the racing industry nationally. Suffolk Downs hasn’t been profitable in years; since 2007, it’s lost approximately $50 million. The handle is small. The racing is cheap. But it’s a track with history, and for many years, a signature stakes race that featured some of racing’s best. It was one of the first tracks to welcome female jockeys. And it’s the last link to Thoroughbred racing in New England. When it closes, a whole industry, culture, and class of work will disappear along with the open space and horses. A community that’s survived decades will be torn apart. “That is one of the prices to pay for this decision,” said Zuniga. That’s it, those lives and jobs, just the cost of supporting Wynn.

More: Jen Montfort makes a great point: “Another loser in this? The horses that were helped into retirement through TRF and CANTER through Suffy’s support of TB aftercare.” Lynne Snierson’s report for the Blood-Horse is terrific coverage of a terrible day. Bruce Mohl at CommonWealth produced some of the best stories about the Boston-area casino license deliberations: Here’s his summary of Tuesday’s decision, which includes the phrase, “But Wynn is also a royal pain,” and raises legitimate questions about how collaborative the mogul will be as the Everett casino project moves forward.

Strong Opening

Thank you, Revere firemen

Suffolk Downs opened for the summer on Saturday, and what a day it was: Drawn by good weather and a Kentucky Derby starter with a local connection, a crowd of 14,612 packed the grandstand for a nine-race card on which $441,507 was bet. If the lines were long, the mood was celebratory as friends and neighbors welcomed each other back for the season, and community organizations were honored with winner’s circle presentations, including one for the Revere Fire Department (photo above), thanking them for so ably putting out a fire that broke out in the track kitchen last week. Trainer Jay Bernardini had three wins on the day; jockeys David Amiss, Vernon Bush, and Dyn Panell scored with two each. Racing resumes Wednesday.

Derby Day Notes

Untapable gets a Beyer speed figure of 107 for her Kentucky Oaks victory, and a TimeformUS figure of 114, numbers that put her in the same company as Kentucky Derby starters California Chrome and Wicked Strong in their final preps. When the “absolutely fabulous” filly makes her next start, the $4 she paid to win as the favorite on Friday is going to look like big money.

Early wagering on the Kentucky Derby has California Chome as the 2-1 favorite, with 27% of the $3.9 million win pool as of 10:00 AM. My picks in the race are California Chrome – Medal Count – Samraat. See who the Hello Race Fans team likes in all of today’s stakes races at Churchill. Good luck!

It’s not only Derby day, it’s opening day at Suffolk Downs, MAYBE FOR THE LAST TIME EVER, as every notice about the start of the 2014 meet points out. First post is 2:15 PM. Top rider Tammi Piermarini has mounts in eight races.

Odds and Ends

Mr. Hot Stuff, cover gelding (PDF). The lazy looker won the A. P. Smithwick at Saratoga on Thursday. “He’s taken to the jumps because he doesn’t have to work that hard,” said trainer Jack Fisher of Colonel John’s brother, who never showed a similar flair for the flat. “Seriously. It’s not as tough; he’s not going down there in :23. It’s just a nice easy gallop for him. Sometimes, doing this, if it’s easy enough, they’ll try again. He’s a beautiful horse.”

The Isadorable Stakes for Massachusetts-breds is Saturday’s feature race at Suffolk Downs. Lynne Snierson has the preview. Southoftheborder, now 10, returns to defend her title; Tammi Piermarini is on Navy Nurse, making her second start of the year and coming off an allowance win on July 15. Even though seeing her atop the standings has become the norm, it’s still hard not to be a little awed by Piermarini’s stats — she’s won 44 races through the meet’s first eight weeks, 19 more than the second leading rider by wins, Gary Wales. She’s up almost $200,000 over the second by earnings, Jackie Davis.

Promo: Breeders’ Cup Fantasy ‘Capping begins with the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga on Saturday. Beat Ray. Join Pete. Or create your own league and play against your friends. Free past performances from the Daily Racing Form and horse bios by Hello Race Fans will help you make your picks.

Suffolk, Monday

Half-siblings Beijing House and Eight City Tour are a coupled entry for trainer Tom McCooey in race eight, an AOC going six furlongs on the main track. The elder is a veteran New England champion, the younger 2-for-3 at Suffolk Downs this year; together they’re 7-2 on the morning line. Beijing House is in for a $20,000 tag coming off a starter allowance win on July 10 — that race was the first time he’d found himself in the winner’s circle since June 4, 2012, ending an 10-race losing streak. Eight City Tour’s one loss at the track came going about a mile on the turf on July 15. He cuts back in this spot to the same distance at which he won an allowance on dirt the race before that.

Results: The Brothers Slacks finished out of the money as the 5-2 third favorites. Beijing House was fourth, Eight City Tour sixth.

Convocation, Monzante Updates

First, the good news: While thinking of Monzante on Sunday, I wrote a few words about Convocation and the recent downward trajectory of the stakes-placed gelding’s career. Teresa Genaro alleviated any concern by tweeting that his original owners had bought him back to retire him from racing. Ray Paulick has more today about how Suffolk Downs and Don Little of Centennial Farms made that happen after the 7-year-old popped up in the entries for a $4,000 claiming race at the track last week:

The entry raised the eyebrows of several people at Suffolk Downs, including Sam Ellliott, the vice president of racing. Don Little noticed, too, having put Convocation on Daily Racing Form’s Stable Mail, a service that alerts subscribers when a horse is entered to race.

“I never questioned any soundness issues and have nothing against the owner or trainer,” Little told the Paulick Report, “but I know the digression of claiming races and decided we needed to find something else for him to do.”

Little contacted his Centennial partners and began the process of buying Convocation back. Word reached Elliott, who called Assimakopoulos last Tuesday and let him know Centennial was interested in retiring the horse.

“Within two minutes,” Elliott said, “I got a call back from John, and they agreed to do this without hesitation — zero reluctance.”

Convocation was scratched. “It was a seven-horse field, too,” Elliott said. “Racetracks are short of horses and you can’t tell people what to do with their horses. I’m glad I have people in place here who are willing to do the right thing.”

The deal isn’t done yet, but when it is, Convocation has a place to go: Little knows someone interested in retraining the gelding as a trail horse.

Now, the bad news: In the words of Louisiana Racing Commission executive director Charles Gardiner, Monzante “was stabilized” on track, “and in the opinion of the state veterinarians he was very salvageable.” That term isn’t as minimally positive as it might seem, and trainer Jackie Thacker and a private vet made the decision to euthanize the gelding when he returned to the barn. Matt Hegarty reported on Monday that the LRC has opened an investigation into the former G1 winner’s death at Evangeline Downs on Saturday.

For more about Monzante: Keep up via Raceday 360 Wire.

The Unlucky Ones

Last week, Convocation appeared in the entries for the first race at Suffolk Downs on July 17. Trainer David Jacobson entered him for a $4,000 claiming tag, or $11,000 less than he had paid when he claimed the multiple stakes-placed gelding on May 9 at Belmont. That race was Convocation’s fourth start in six months following a 14-month layoff that began after he finished eighth in the 2011 Woodward. His fifth looked like it’d be a short, final drop to the bottom — the best case scenario, if he had run last Wednesday, was that he would win, get claimed by a local trainer, start a couple more times in East Boston, and then get listed on the CANTER New England website, where he’d be described as a well-bred former stakes-caliber horse who needed a little time off and wanted to be someone’s pet. It was a relief when he scratched.*

Monzante didn’t scratch from the fourth race at Evangeline on Saturday. It was the 2008 Eddie Read winner’s first race in eight months, and the graded-stakes winner who had earned more than half a million dollars was running for $4,000. It wasn’t his first time in for a tag — that had happened in June 2011, when he ran for $50,000 in his first race following a 14-month layoff. From there, the Juddmonte-bred kept falling in class, his losses rarely punctuated by a win, moving from Churchill to Aqueduct to Delta Downs, from the barns of Mike Mitchell and Steve Asmussen to Jackie Thacker.

Maybe there was no reason to scratch Monzante, even though he hadn’t raced in months and his last recorded work was a five-furlong breeze on June 1. I don’t know what the track veterinarian might have seen during a pre-race examination, or what Thacker felt when he ran his hands over Monzante’s legs. Maybe he just looked like any other bottom-level claimer, a little sore but sound enough. If he had been any other bottom-level claimer, what happened in the fourth at Evangeline would have almost certainly gone unremarked by most in racing: Monzante broke down. Monzante was euthanized.

That’s not supposed to be the end for a Grade 1 winner.

The Monzante case, where a G1 winner runs in a low level claimer, is a BIG flaw in our racing system,” tweeted Alex Brown.

Except, it’s not a flaw: The system functioned as designed. In 2008, Monzante was a stakes horse. In 2013, he was a claimer. He was at his level. What a case such as his exposes isn’t a defect in the system, but the cruelty that is always lurking in claiming racing, which relies equally on commodifying horses and on the ability of the people who participate in it to protect horses from its worst consequences. Too often, that’s where the system fails.

Two years ago, while I and another CANTER New England volunteer were taking listings on the Suffolk Downs backstretch, a trainer called us over to his barn. He had a horse to sell. We followed him down the shedrow to the stall of a chestnut gelding. It was Dubinsky, a horse I remembered from the start of his career, when he debuted in a maiden special at Aqueduct. He peaked with a third in the 2009 Hill Prince Stakes; from there, he descended through the claiming ranks. His right knee was swollen, and the trainer told us that the 5-year-old was arthritic before leading him out so that we could take a picture. He’d finished seventh in his last race.

“Dubinsky should benefit from some time off and should make an excellent flat or pleasure prospect,” read his CANTER listing.

He was limping, but alive, and he had a shot at a second career as a riding horse. He was one of the lucky ones. What kind of game is racing that that could be true of Dubinsky, but not of Monzante?

*7:00 PM Update: Count Convocation among the lucky, too — his original owners purchased him with plans to retire.

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