Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Suffolk Downs

Closing Day

Bo Badger and Taylor Hole after winning race nine at Suffolk Downs on October 4, 2014
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.

Results: Suffolk Downs charts for 10/4/14 (PDF)

Winning Bets, Losing Fans

Michael Gee went to the track with newbies on Saturday:

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.

The Massachusetts Experiment

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 and made racing safer for vulnerable (older, cheaper) horses.

Closing Eve

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.

Moving On

What’s next for some Suffolk Downs backstretch families?

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.

Bleak State

How’s this for a depressing flashback? While looking for something else in the Railbird archive, I came across this April 2005 post about Suffolk Downs, “It’s Dying,” written during an especially pessimistic spring:

… expanded gaming won’t solve New England’s long-term racing woes … Thoroughbred racing will leave New England. It’s inevitable.

Yikes. There’s no satisfaction in being proven right.

Although, I haven’t been, not quite yet. Live racing ends at Suffolk Downs on October 4, and simulcasting at the track will cease sometime in December, but the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is “trying to keep the door open” to Thoroughbred racing, approving a more flexible application process for 2015 on Thursday. Commission chair Stephen Crosby sees possibility:

“There’s the Brockton Fair, there’s the Northampton Fair, there’s fairgrounds all over the place, where there are tracks that can accommodate a thoroughbred race. So that’s one of the issues. And plus, you can create a new thoroughbred track. So there are plenty of options out there. How good, which is the better, I don’t have any idea but there are options out there.”

Sure, options. And any proposals submitted for a meet next year are sure to be creative and take into consideration the realities of the current game. After all, as racing director Jennifer Durenberger told the Commission yesterday, horse racing is “a nimble, flexible, and adaptive industry.” (Stop laughing.) One possible option for next year is a meet run by the New England HBPA, which used a letter to the Commission retroactively approving a 65 day meet this year to press its ultimate claim for a “reasonable” 125 days (PDF, page 103).

Sincere Interest

Caught between state law and desperate horsemen, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission agreed on Thursday to “finesse around the regulatory process,” as commissioner Bruce Stebbins put it, and accept “placeholder” applications for a possible 2015 Thoroughbred race meet, so long as “a sincere description of interest” was submitted by the state-mandated deadline of October 1.

“Give us a concept plan, get it into us by the 1st,” said commissioner James McHugh, “and we’ll figure out what to do with it.”

The New England HBPA, which has proposed leasing Suffolk Downs for next year, is expected to submit an application after its officers’ election concludes this week. Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle expressed some skepticism of the group’s plan in a conversation with WBUR’s Jack Lepiarz:

The current operating structure is that they’re losing $10 million a year … you need to erase a $10 million dollar hole and somehow create a $2 million profit. He said to me: “I see no credible way that that can happen right now.”

In 2002, all-sources handle at Suffolk Downs reached $303 million. In 2000, on-track live racing handle totaled $27.6 million. It’s been decline since.

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