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 Racehorse 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 Racehorse 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 Racehorse 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.
“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 Racehorse 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.
“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.
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.
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 Racehorse 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.
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.
“The best-case scenario is that the commissioners table it or just say ‘no’ in a formal vote,” said trainer Bill Lagorio of Suffolk Downs’ application to run three live racing days this year, which is pending before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. That might be taking for granted the money set aside for Thoroughbred racing in the state’s Racehorse Development Fund.
Tammi Piermarini, a five-time leading rider at Suffolk Downs and the third-winningest female jockey in racing, has moved on to Parx. Her book is being handled by a name familiar to New England fans — former rider Joe Hampshire has signed on as Piermarini’s agent. Her services are in demand, reports the jockey, and she and her family have settled in well at their new home.
It looks as though closing day for the 2014 meet won’t be the last day of racing ever at Suffolk Downs: The East Boston track has filed an application (PDF) with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to hold three days of racing this year. If approved, the cards will be scheduled for July 11, August 8, and September 5, spacing that gives horsemen a chance to run back horses (and in particular, Massachusetts-breds) for the projected $500,000 in daily purses. Lynne Snierson reports that the track anticipates filling 12-14 races each day; Matt Hegarty that takeout on wagers will drop to 15% across the board. Steeplechase races may be in the mix. The MGC will hold a public hearing on June 11 to discuss the application. They’re taking comments now.
5/21/15 Addendum: Not all horsemen support Suffolk’s application:
… which they say would bring few benefits to local horse owners and trainers who need a much longer season to survive. Last year, there were 65 days of racing at Suffolk Downs.
“I oppose the transfer of race horse development funds in consideration of a day or two of racing,” Billy Lagorio, a horse owner, wrote in a letter to the state commission. The letter characterized Suffolk Downs as “uncommitted” to conducting “a meaningful horse racing” season.
Really, the only way to view this three-day proposal is as a life preserver for Massachusetts Thoroughbred racing. It’s a means of tapping the Racehorse Development Fund monies already banked to help keep horsemen afloat until — well, that’s uncertain. It’s not a “meaningful” season — it’s not meant to be.
Bo Badger and Taylor Hole gallop back after winning the last race at Suffolk Downs on October 4, 2014. More photos from closing day at the track.
“They should have been here two years ago,” said trainer Kevin McCarthy, looking over the Suffolk Downs paddock fence at a crowd that pressed three deep despite the rain that began minutes before the final race on Saturday. Twelve starters were entered, including McCarthy’s horse, Indy’s Illusion, a 4-year-old A.P. Indy colt who finished ninth in the 2013 Florida Derby.
The crowd began to clap as the field left the paddock. The sound rose and fell as the post parade first passed the clubhouse rail, then turned back toward the grandstand side. What was very likely the last card ever run at the 79-year-old track was about to end. But for McCarthy, newly elected to the NEHBPA board, the day’s last race was only the last race of 2014 meet. “We’ll be here next year,” he said. “I don’t know in what form, but we’ll be here.”
“We’ll be here,” “next year” — the phrases kept coming up in conversation. Paul Umbrello of Charles River Racing, an owner and another new NEHBPA board member, wore an electric blue t-shirt with the injunction, “Keep Calm and Save Suffolk Downs / Vote NO on Question 3,” a reference to the casino repeal measure on this November’s ballot. “We’ll be here,” he said, and talked about the NEHBPA’s effort to put together a plan for leasing the track.
A few of the starting gate crew passed through the scale house on their way to load the ninth race. “See you next year,” they said as they hugged Suffolk’s communications director Jessica Paquette goodbye. “If we’re here next year,” she joked, “I’ll do opening day in a bikini.”
Next year is a longshot, and the mood in the winner’s circle darkened with the sky as the field neared the gate. So much of the afternoon had felt like any other closing day, with familiar faces and familiar horses, presentations honoring the year’s leading trainer and leading rider, and chatter about moving on for winter. But it was impossible to forget that closing day meant something else this year, that it was almost certainly the last day of live racing held in East Boston, and that people were there to witness its conclusion. Lines trailed from every teller window as the 9,153 in attendance (more than had been seen since opening day) placed their bets (wagering $305,814) on races so full there were horses on the backstretch who couldn’t get in. Local reporters prowled the apron. “You’ve got to get the last jockey coming off his horse,” said one news photographer to another. “That’s the story.”
The last race was a mile and 70 yards, and the horses went into the gate in front of the grandstand. The bell rang, and the crowd cheered, and a minute later, the field was in the stretch, Bo Badger and Indy’s Illusion in front, dueling to the wire, trading head bobs to the end. The photo sign was lit. They galloped back and circled near the finish line, waiting.
Glowing bright in the gloom, the “OFFICIAL” light of the toteboard switched on: #2 was first, #12 was second, and there was a dead heat for third. Bo Badger, owned by Eighth Note Stable and trained by John and Kathy Botty, would be the last winner at Suffolk Downs. He paid $21.80, and the crowd applauded as the winner’s circle photo was taken. When it was done and the horse unsaddled, Kathy rushed toward Taylor Hole, the last winning jockey, with a teary face and clasped him to her. “Thank you, thank you,” she said.
Cornelius, a Bruins fan of note, was the third member of our party. He’s roughly my son’s age. He had never been to a horse race. He didn’t know how to read a program or the Daily Racing Form, at first anyway. But before the nine-race card was half over, Cornelius cashed a big ticket, hitting an exacta that paid $97.20 for a two dollar bet. And he was hooked. By the seventh race, Cornelius had hit another exacta, was deep into exotic wagering, and observed, “maybe it’s a good thing for me this place is closing. I can see how this could get serious.”
Cornelius was a lost opportunity for Suffolk Downs.
This is another way in which Suffolk’s closing will reverberate through the industry. A region without a racetrack is a region that isn’t feeding a lot of new racing fans and bettors into the game. That’s a hit, especially when the city without a track is as young and populous as the Boston metro area.
One year’s decline isn’t a trend, but the fatality rate reduction at Suffolk Downs reported by racing director Jennifer Durenberger is still impressive:
Let’s look first at the catastrophic injury rate for the meet: 1.24 per thousand starts. This is down from 1.73 in 2013 — a nearly 30 percent reduction …
Thanks to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database (EID), which captures data from an amazing 93 percent of all flat racing days, we know that the average catastrophic injury rate in 2013 was 1.9 per thousand starts. That includes all horses — young and old, graded stakes competitors and seasoned claimers, sprinters and routers, turf specialists and mudders. When we separate that by surface, we see a nationwide average of 1.63 catastrophic injuries per thousand turf starters and 2.08 per thousand dirt starters. At Suffolk Downs in 2014, the turf rate was 1.44 and the dirt rate was 1.20 — less than 60 percent of the national average.
Among the losses incurred by Suffolk Downs’ demise, count the reform work done by state regulators in partnership with track management since 2012, work that included adopting uniform medication rules and a horse-first welfare policy, making racing safer for vulnerable (older, cheaper) horses.
Closing day at Suffolk Downs has long been poignant. Since the track became the last in New England, get-away day has meant a scattering — of horses and trainers and riders to Florida and Maryland and others points south — and the start of another winter. The backstretch empties. The grandstand echoes. First frost ices the infield, then snow covers the racetrack. What’s kept it from being sad has been knowing that come spring, the horses would be back.
But this Saturday, there’s another near-certainty: That the horses won’t return. That after 79 years, Saturday isn’t closing day for another season, but forever.
I’ve seen comments here and there that Suffolk’s end doesn’t matter, that its closing will bolster racing elsewhere, and that its best days are far in the past — the takeout is too high (say horseplayers), there’s too much racing for the market to bear (say industry wiseguys), the game is old-fashioned and can’t draw a crowd (say those who can’t see the beauty and challenge of it) — but I’ll miss the place, and its history and gritty charm, and all the good people who called it theirs and fought for its survival, coming back year after year.
I’ll miss my spot on the rail by the winner’s circle too, but not before I stand at it tomorrow for what’s likely the last time. I’m going to try to celebrate Suffolk until then, try to be like 89-year-old Mary Donatti, a regular since 1941. Asked by a Boston Globe reporter if she had more to say about closing day:
… the sprightly Donatti said, “No, I have to study,” as she peered into her racing form to prep for her day’s first wager.
That’s a woman who knows — there’s always another race.
There is a longshot possibility for next year: The New England HBPA submitted a “placeholder” application for a 2015 meet with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission on Wednesday. It’s talking with Suffolk Downs management about leasing the track. It’s exploring changing state simulcasting law so that monies can be diverted from purses to operations. “Don’t give up hope, yet!” a teller said to a first-time visitor drawn by Suffolk’s imminent shutdown. I’d like to think he’s right, but I’ll be there on Saturday to say goodbye.
She said her father, who is an outrider at the track, has been going to Maryland for the winters over the last several years, and will likely have to go down there for nine months now and then go further into the south for the remaining three months …
More than anything, though, she said she feels for her uncles, who are all in their 40s and 50s and are facing the end of their life-long trade.
“For my uncles, that’s all they know how to do; that’s their trade,” she said. “They have done nothing else their entire lives, just that one trade working with horses. I guess they could work at a gas station or as a cashier somewhere, but that’s kind of demeaning for them after so many years working so hard in their trade.”
New England HBPA president Anthony Spadea plans to file a “placeholder” application for 2015 racing dates by tomorrow. The move will give the group time to sort out a possible plan. “The issue is extremely complicated, and we need to see if the simulcasting laws in the state can be changed,” Spadea told Lynne Snierson after a meeting with Suffolk Downs officials on Monday.
10/1/14 Update: Carney has filed for 2015 Brockton dates.
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