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.
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 was taught to mix feed, feel for heat, pick feet, 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 pinky morning light, Ascot Doll lazily flicking his ears and tail, Mario’s hands dropped low, the shank hanging loosely from his fingers.
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.
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.
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 Racehorse 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.
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.”
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.
Copyright © 2000-2016 by Jessica Chapel. All rights reserved.