Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Racing Archive

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.

Super Saturday Aftermath

Two weeks ago, the Breeders’ Cup Classic looked as though it would be a showdown between two California 3-year-olds. Now it’s setting up as an East Coast vs. West Coast sophomore clash, after Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist exited a troubled Jockey Club Gold Cup with his second Grade 1 win and an improved, blinkers-off running style, and undefeated Shared Belief was tested, but not bested, by trainer Bob Baffert’s duo of Fed Biz and Sky Kingdom in the Awesome Again. Both winners reportedly came out their races in fine shape.

That’s the good news. The bad is that jockey Rajiv Maragh is out indefinitely with a broken arm after falling from Wicked Strong during the first half of the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Junior Alvarado, aboard Moreno when he veered into Wicked Strong’s path, causing the two to clip heels, is due before the stewards at Belmont Park this Wednesday to discuss the incident. [10/1/14 Update: Alvarado has been suspended for 15 days (DRF+ link).]

At Santa Anita, the stewards have already handed Victor Espinoza a seven-day suspension for the Awesome Again, in which his mount, Sky Kingdom, the longest shot in the field, steered Mike Smith and Shared Belief toward the center of the track on the first turn and then kept them running wide until he tired on the far turn and fell back to finish last. Trakus shows Shared Belief running 66 feet more than runner-up Fed Biz, who had a rail trip.

“It’s ridiculous,” Espinoza told Art Wilson on Saturday, responding to the allegation that Sky Kingdom was acting as a foil for his stablemate’s competition. “I would never try to hurt anybody or bump somebody, especially a horse like that. He’s an amazing horse. My horse, he always runs on the outside. He doesn’t like having dirt kicked in his face.”

Whether intentional or not, writes Mike Watchmaker, “what Espinoza did in the Awesome Again looks bad. Really bad. It appeared unprofessional.” You can judge for yourself: Watch Santa Anita’s HD replay.

While Smith was hotly deriding his rival’s post-race explanation, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was playing it cool. “We’re all big boys,” he said. “It’s no big deal for me. Mike [Smith] will have to settle up with Victor [Espinoza]. It’s not the worst thing in the world to have a tough race and be double fit for the Breeders’ Cup. That race will be tougher, so we’ll need to be tougher too.”

Beyer speed figures and TimeformUS ratings for Super Saturday’s Belmont Park and Santa Anita graded stakes winners:


Figure sources: DRF stakes results (Beyers); Craig Milkowski (TimeformUS)

Re: Shared Belief’s 114 for the Awesome Again, Craig Milkowski tweeted, “If our figures included ground loss, particularly ground loss in relation to pace, Shared Belief would easily be 125+ …”

Super Saturday 2014

Today’s group and graded stakes with potential Breeders’ Cup implications from Newmarket to Santa Anita, listed in order of approximate post time:

Charts, replays, and occasional updates to be added through the day.

4:25 PM: Stephanie’s Kitten, the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Fillies winner, just earned her way into this year’s Filly and Mare Turf with a win in the Flower Bowl at Belmont Park as the 6-5 favorite (following second-place finishes in the Beverly D. and Diana this summer). You know Stephanie’s Kitten will be at Santa Anita so long as she’s sound, but the same can’t be said for Kelso Handicap winner Vyjack — according to the post-race quote sent out by NYRA, trainer Rudy Rodriguez had been targeting the Cigar Mile. “I have to talk to the owner and see what his plans are now,” said Rodriquez. Woodward winner Itsmyluckyday, not Breeders’ Cup nominated, finished third in the Kelso. Said Jockey Paco Lopez after, “He tried really hard, but I don’t think he liked the track.” Woodward runner-up Moreno is pegged as the 7-2 second favorite on the Jockey Club Gold Cup morning line.

4:55 PM: Private Zone must like Belmont. Winless in three starts since last year’s Vosburgh Stakes, he became the first horse in 24 years to win the Vosburgh for two consecutive years (the last was New Jersey-bred Sewickley in 1989-1990, whose broodmare sire was Dr. Fager, a back-to-back Vosburgh winner in 1967-68). Too bad for Private Zone that the Breeders’ Cup is at Santa Anita again. He finished 10th in the 2013 Sprint.

5:47 PM: Wow — 10 minutes to post in the Zenyatta Stakes and 95% of the show pool is on two-time champion Beholder, making her first start since sustaining an injury while finishing fourth in the June 7 Phipps at Belmont:

The pools for the Zenyatta Stakes by percentage, 10 minutes before post time

6:10 PM: You have to admire a filly as game and classy as Beholder:

10:00 PM: Here’s how much further Trakus says Shared Belief had to run than runner-up Fed Biz to win the Awesome Again after Sky Kingdom (the other Baffert and the longest shot in the field) forced him wide on the first turn:

Trakus numbers for the 2014 Awesome Again finish

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