JC / Railbird

Suffolk Downs

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 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.

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 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.

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.”

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