Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Racing Archive

Suffolk Notes

Penn National, George Carney, and as-yet-unidentified revenue streams. If you follow horse racing — if you follow Massachusetts racing — it sounds like the set-up to a bad joke, doesn’t it? But those are the options for continuing Thoroughbred racing in the state that the Massachusetts Gaming Commission will discuss at a meeting next Thursday. “Empty posturing,” said Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle, who gave notice of layoffs to the state Labor department and 176 track workers on Wednesday.

The Commission apparently plans to ask Penn National about the possibility of a Thoroughbred meet. “It’s something we have not looked at,” VP of racing Christopher McErlean told Lynne Snierson, “but in the future, who knows?” The company is currently constructing a slots parlor at Plainridge; its renovations at the harness track don’t include a dirt or turf course.

Carney, and his son Christopher, owners of the Brockton Fairgrounds and the defunct dog racing track Raynham Park, are planning to request 60 dates for their six-furlong dirt fairground course, which hasn’t been used since 2000. “It might not be big, glitzy, and glamorous, but it worked for us,” said Christopher Carney, extolling the virtues of a bullring track to Snierson:

Carney reasoned that since the dirt track is six furlongs and there is no turf course, out-of-town outfits would not ship in to compete against locals, as they have done at Suffolk Downs.

That sounds like a great racing product, just what the bettors love. Why such racing would appeal to horsemen — and why, in the short-term, it might even be desirable as a source of jobs — is understandable, but there’s no shot that kind of racing survives long-term, and not only because it would attract so little attention and handle. Before the expanded gaming legislation passed, there were state legislators clamoring to reduce or eliminate the monies going into the Racing Development Fund so that it could be used for local or school aid. The subject hasn’t come up lately, partly because there hasn’t been any money, other than the Plainridge license fee, but mostly, because the state economy and budget aren’t stressed. When there’s a slump or shortfall, the RDF will become a target. Purses or textbooks? It’ll be an easy choice.

That Penn or Carney are what’s on the table is depressing. Racing at Suffolk might not have been the best, but track management didn’t neglect safety or aftercare issues, and the work they were doing with the state Racing Division in building a regulatory framework that relied on uniform rules and putting horse welfare first hinted at the quality of racing that could have been, even if average daily purses (with the RDF money) still didn’t quite reach the top tier.

Two links to leave with:

Jen Montfort stands up for Suffolk Downs:

Yes, it looks like parts of it haven’t been updated since the 50s, and you could probably stage an Olympic event based on navigating the undulating concrete floor. But they very well could’ve completely let the place go these past years, and they didn’t. It’s clean. The paint isn’t peeling. For a plant that is over 75 years old it’s in pretty good condition. The landscaping is actually quite lovely. And in the summer there is absolutely no better place to sit in the stands to watch some racing, enjoy a breeze off the ocean, and see that lovely infield and the marsh and Atlantic Ocean beyond.

And Bill Finley says goodbye:

There was absolutely nothing pretentious about Suffolk Downs or the people who called it home. There were the old war horses like Rise Jim, Let Burn, Darby Gillic and jockeys who rode not for the glory but to put food on the table, guys named Carl Gambardella, Rudy Baez, Jack Penney, Vernon Bush. Saratoga was classier. Santa Anita was prettier. Churchill had the Kentucky Derby. No one at Suffolk Downs cared. Jealousy wasn’t part of their fabric …

It was a beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder type of love affair that a lot of us had with Suffolk Downs but the place really was special, in its own unique, unapologetic, Boston working class way.

It really was. (Is, for five more racing days.)

No Bluff

When the Boston Globe endorsed the Wynn-Everett casino proposal the day before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission began its deliberations on the Boston-area license, the newspaper dismissed the likelihood that Suffolk Downs would close unless Mohegan Sun was the winner:

According to the track, it will end racing if the casino does not open. But the commission ought to take the doom-and-gloom warnings with a grain of salt; threats to close may be a pressure tactic.

Nope, to the surprise of no one who actually follows racing in Massachusetts. The track owners have been upfront about the situation for years — racing at Suffolk would continue only with a casino. (Had expanded gaming legislation not passed in 2011, it’s very possible the track would have closed then.) With the Mohegan bid dead, the process of shutting down began:

… on Wednesday morning, Suffolk Downs chief Chip Tuttle stood before 200 emotional employees in the Topsider Room overlooking the track, hailing them for fighting the good fight, and then telling them what they already knew. On his desk, a three-inch deep pile of letters giving employees 60 days notice awaited his signature.

Heartbreaking, as is Lynne Snierson’s report from Suffolk Downs, where people around the track were reeling from the loss and grappling with the question of what they would do next. “Where am I going to take my family and start my life over?”, said Tammi Piermarini, four-time leading jockey:

“I have to uproot and go someplace because riding horses is my business. It’s hard enough being a woman in a male-dominated sport, but now I’m 47. I may be the third-winningest female rider, but trainers are going to say, ‘What has she done lately?’”

Jon Chesto wonders why the commission seemingly gave less weight to the Thoroughbred industry than it did harness when it awarded the slots license to the Penn National-Plainridge proposal earlier this year:

For some reason, though, the commission handled this vote quite differently. Unlike in February, the commissioners gave no mention to the economic benefits of horse racing in their summarized assessments of the two proposals that became public last week. As a result, it was barely a factor in the final deliberations that led up to the 3-1 vote … Mohegan got points for the design of its Revere proposal, and its cooperative efforts to reach a mitigation agreement with Boston officials. Mohegan didn’t get points, at least not formally, for protecting Suffolk’s workers.

Informally, it got points from Gayle Cameron, the sole commissioner to argue for Thoroughbred racing during deliberations (“We’re talking about preserving jobs, preserving the existing industry, and I think that’s worth some weight in this discussion,” she said on Monday) — and yet, she ultimately joined commissioners Enrique Zuniga and Bruce Stebbins in voting for Wynn.

Chesto suggests that the difference between the votes may have been due to Mohegan Sun distancing itself from the Suffolk racing operation, which was necessary because the East Boston referendum results mandated that there could be no casino operations or facilities on that side of the track’s property. Maybe — that certainly seems plausible. But maybe the commissioners — like the Globe — thought the track’s threat to close wasn’t entirely serious. In a report for the Commission, HLT Advisory downplayed the possible disruption to the state’s Thoroughbred industry if Suffolk shut down (PDF):

Despite public comments by Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC and others that Suffolk Downs will close if MSM is not successful with their Category 1 Application, continuation of thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts will be dependent on a variety of factors, including consumer interest in the racing product, ongoing underwriting of any future losses by Sterling Suffolk or others, underlying land value/development potential of the racetrack and competitive influences. Some thoroughbred racing activity may continue at Suffolk Downs or at another new/renovated racetrack elsewhere in Massachusetts in the future as revenues are generated for the Horse Racing Development Fund.

(LOL at the idea of a new, non-casino racetrack being built in a local gaming market that’s about to become extremely competitive, even with 75% of the $106 million — plus $133 million from Wynn — that HLT projects flowing into the Racing Development Fund over five years allocated to Thoroughbreds.)

According to a statement issued this afternoon, “the Commission and its Racing Division are fully committed to an extensive and sustained exploration of every available option that may preserve the long tradition of thoroughbred racing in the Commonwealth.” They will discuss the matter at a meeting on September 25. The last day of racing at Suffolk Downs will be September 29.

The Price to Pay

It’s over. The years-long pursuit of Suffolk Downs for expanded gaming — first, for casino legislation in Massachusetts, then for one of the three resort casino licenses authorized by the Commonwealth in 2011 — came to an end on Tuesday when the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, by a vote of 3-1, awarded the Boston-area license to Wynn, which proposed a $1.6 billion project on a former industrial site (with questionable ownership) in Everett, instead of Mohegan Sun, which proposed to build a $1.3 billion complex on land leased from the track. With the decision, the track will close.

You bet, I’m disappointed. Suffolk Downs was where I became a racing fan 11 years ago. It was where I learned to handicap, and how to handle a horse, and it’s been the track I thought of as home, even during the four years I lived in New York. And my connection — well, it’s nothing compared to the connections forged by the horsemen and track workers who have made their lives around the place, sometimes over generations, sticking with it through rough years and holding out hope that better times would come with a casino.

Devastating is the word for what’s happening to the hundreds who will be laid off after the meet closes on September 29, and for those who will be forced out of the work that is, for some, all they’ve known. “Not everyone is cut out for the Innovation Economy, and the people who work here embody that,” Suffolk COO Chip Tuttle said in an interview with WBUR after the decision. “So we’ve got some very hard-working but low-skilled folks here for whom this is going to be an incredibly difficult transition.”

Speaking to that issue, raised by a reporter during the press conference that followed the official license award ceremony this morning, commissioner James McHugh — the only one to vote for the Mohegan Sun at Suffolk Downs proposal — said that he and the other commissioners were aware of the “sadness” felt by Thoroughbred racing supporters following the decision for Wynn, and that track workers wouldn’t be forgotten. “They’re good people, it’s a good industry,” he said, “and we’re going to do all we can to assist them.”

That’s a nice sentiment, even if it sounds a bit hollow the day after rejecting Mohegan Sun’s bid. Had the proposal been successful, the lease arrangement could have been lucrative — according to figures cited by commissioner Enrique Zuniga and reported in CommonWealth:

Suffolk Downs would receive rent payments of about $35 million a year that could rise to between $75 million and $85 million a year based on the gross revenues of the casino operation. Zuniga also said Suffolk Downs had put up $70 million in equity in the casino and stands to receive more than 5 percent of any distributions to the owners of the facility.

With those payments, and 75% of the money from the state’s Racehorse Development Fund (a percentage of casino and slots licensing fees and revenues set aside for purses, breeding, and backstretch support) due Suffolk, track officials had committed to racing for another 15 years and outlined a plan for $40 million in facilities improvements.

Now? There might be mixed-use development. “It’s a unique opportunity. The imagination can run wild a bit,” a developer told the Boston Herald:

Begelfer said … the Eastie-Revere site could mimic the once derelict, now trendy Seaport District. The former racetrack could host affordable middle-class housing as well office space for tech startups being priced out of Cambridge.

Or maybe a soccer stadium will take the track’s place.

I guess that’s progress, and better land use, and makes sense given trends in the racing industry nationally. Suffolk Downs hasn’t been profitable in years; since 2007, it’s lost approximately $50 million. The handle is small. The racing is cheap. But it’s a track with history, and for many years, a signature stakes race that featured some of racing’s best. It was one of the first tracks to welcome female jockeys. And it’s the last link to Thoroughbred racing in New England. When it closes, a whole industry, culture, and class of work will disappear along with the open space and horses. A community that’s survived decades will be torn apart. “That is one of the prices to pay for this decision,” said Zuniga. That’s it, those lives and jobs, just the cost of supporting Wynn.

More: Jen Montfort makes a great point: “Another loser in this? The horses that were helped into retirement through TRF and CANTER through Suffy’s support of TB aftercare.” Lynne Snierson’s report for the Blood-Horse is terrific coverage of a terrible day. Bruce Mohl at CommonWealth produced some of the best stories about the Boston-area casino license deliberations: Here’s his summary of Tuesday’s decision, which includes the phrase, “But Wynn is also a royal pain,” and raises legitimate questions about how collaborative the mogul will be as the Everett casino project moves forward.

Before the Hall of Fame

I remember Ashado mostly for her fourth-place finish, a dead heat with Island Sand, in the 2005 Personal Ensign at Saratoga. I met trainer Larry Jones that weekend, when he hired me to walk his filly. It was the first time I’d handled a $1 million earner, and Island Sand was ill-tempered and nippy. Her groom lifted his shirt to show me the enormous bruise she’d left biting his belly. Jones told an off-color joke at a barn BBQ the night before, and was kind enough to drive me into town on Sunday morning so that I could escape the backstretch for an hour and read the New York Times. He paid me $30 cash to cool her out after the race. We had to go to the test barn, where Todd Pletcher stood, unmoving, watching Ashado circle the shedrow from behind his sunglasses, and Island Sand pulled me around so hard my arm ached.

Congratulations to Ashado’s connections on her induction into the Racing Hall of Fame today, and to all of this year’s honorees.

More Media

John Pricci on the racing media:

Without objective coverage, what passes for reportage these days often is rewritten press releases, that is when industry media bother to make the effort at all.

Internet news disseminators have joined this bandwagon, learning to follow the money—their own—and tend not to trumpet any commentary that could be construed as controversial, thus becoming part of a problematic trend.

Sure, I smirked a little reading that. And then I sighed, because it’s a simplistic critique. There’s a bit too much romanticizing about the Great Newspaper Turf Journalists of Yore these days by those who look across the press box and see only decline in the presence of the digital-first breed now filling the seats.

Oh, that’s a gross generalization, you say? You bet.

When I started following racing a decade ago, both of Boston’s daily newspapers had a turf writer. Most newspapers of any size in a market with a racetrack had a turf reporter. There’s no denying that layoffs and buyouts and retirements and the swift shift to digital media has made the newspaper turf writer an endangered species and left significant gaps in coverage. Everyone who thinks about the subject should feel a little alarm at the thought that Tom Noonan and Alan Mann — both expert as they are in the areas they blog about regularly — are pretty much it for purveyors of ongoing, critical, non-trade press coverage of NYRA. (Noonan, bless him, actually files FOIA requests.)

But a lot of the coverage 10 years ago was rewritten press releases, and bland race previews and recaps that all used the same quotes from the same NTRA teleconferences and track stable notes. It was much of that “reporting” that’s been squeezed out, and it’s hard to call the development bad. Consider the New York Post writers laid off on the eve of the 2013 Belmont Stakes, who Pricci casts in heroic pose as “trying to broker negotiations between NYRA and Post executives, the goal being to recover advertising that was pulled following the critical story.” Admirable. Yet Ed Fountaine had checked out years ago — he was burned out, something even he acknowledged:

Fountaine … said he was relieved to be let go, citing the daily grind of the job. “I’ve got a screenplay I’ve been wanting to finish, and a couple of books I want to write, projects I couldn’t do because of my job,” he said. “Now I have the time. I’m not doing handstands, but I’m close.”

If there’s a bright side to the losses, it’s that stories deserving more depth and reportage are getting attention, because that’s the kind of coverage that offers enough value to cover its costs and has the potential to cross over (disagree or not with how Joe Drape reports on racing for the New York Times — his work has highlighted real issues within the industry, engages more casual observers, and is pushing reforms). “My reality says racing journalism has gotten better,” tweeted Blood-Horse writer Tom LaMarra. “It covers things esteemed writers of the past wouldn’t touch.” Team Valor is rewarding investigative reporting with a $25,000 annual award (PDF). The Thoroughbred Daily News has used its platform to publish work such as a six-part series on drugs in racing, and given space for debate on stories such as the PETA investigation of Steve Asmussen’s barn. There’s also more room for, and possibilities for the inventive telling of, the kind of soft stories that broadly appeal — think the Blood-Horse longform features, or the New York Times’ “Snow Fall”-like profile of jockey Russell Baze.

What’s in danger of being completely lost is independent, daily coverage that encompasses management issues and handle numbers as much as racing results. Work that’s important for transparency and accountability, but isn’t splashy. I’m not sure what the solution is — turf media support, in the form of advertising, primarily comes from the breeding or wagering segments of the industry, and so that’s where most coverage concentrates, and even though an organization like NYRA is state-regulated, state-managed, and operates on state-owned lands, assigning a beat reporter to it is obviously a hard sell to mainstream news executives who see it, if they see it at all, as a niche within bigger beats such as state government, or sports. This is a problem.

Bayern Figures

The Travers is now a possibility for Bayern after the 3-year-old colt trained by Bob Baffert wired the Haskell, winning by 7 1/4 lengths (replay). He was given a Beyer speed figure of 109 for the effort, two points higher than his freaky Woody Stephens win on Belmont Stakes day, and the second-highest Beyer awarded to any 3-year-old of either sex so far this year. Baffert had been thinking of the seven-furlong King’s Bishop as Bayern’s next start, “but I don’t think I’ll back him up after this,” he said post-race, per the Monmouth Park press notes. Instead of the 10-furlong Travers, writes Mike Watchmaker, “consider the nine-furlong Woodward at Saratoga against older horses one week after …” Hm, why not? The Haskell to Woodward move worked for Rachel Alexandra in 2009, and if any horse emerged from yesterday’s running looking like a potential Horse of Year candidate, it was the winner. It certainly wasn’t post-time favorite and fifth-place finisher Untapable — not to take anything away from the filly, who lost nothing as the leader of her division on Sunday and who was really up against it, running four wide on a track that may have been favoring a front-runner, but that performance should put an end to any further comparisons to the truly unbeatable 2009 Horse of the Year.

Related: “Have to bet Bayern off that huge 121 @TimeformUS Speed Figure [for the Woody Stephens],” tweeted Craig Milkowski before the Haskell. “It is a legit number.” The figuremaker gave the winner a 119 after.

Media Matters

A couple of years ago, I stopped at one of the newsstands in my neighborhood to pick up a magazine with a cover story that was being much discussed online, even though it wasn’t available digitally because the publisher was a web skeptic. A student from a local business school stopped me as I left to ask a few questions. He was doing a survey for a class, and he wanted to know what I’d bought, and why I had done so. Because how else could I read the story I wanted to read?, I replied. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I’ve never gone in there. I don’t buy print media.” It turned out that the class assignment was to talk to people who bought products or went to stores with which the students were unfamiliar. It was an empathy exercise, and I was the weirdo.

I laughed and moved on, but the brief conversation stuck with me — to this 20-something guy, a newsstand — a natural part of my then 30-something physical and intellectual landscape — was an alien space frequented by customers who made inexplicable purchases. The encounter comes back to me when I read pieces about the decline of newspapers, about disappearing print; I think about how print still has a place in media, in getting the news to people, and yet how to a rising audience, news is disaggregated and fragmented, delivered by social network and consumed on mobile devices. If you follow the business of media, you know the stats and trends.

“Nothing can compete with the shimmering immediacy of now,” writes New York Times media reporter David Carr in his column this week, “and not just when seismic events take place, but in our everyday lives. We are sponges and we live in a world where the fire hose is always on.” Carr — a journalist rooted in old media but adept at the new — took the train to Saratoga on Thursday, and used the time to catch up on his print reading. His fellow passengers shouted into cell phones and complained about the weak wi-fi.

I’m sure among the those wireless users were people trying to access DRF.com or Blood-Horse, or sites such as Horse Racing Nation or America’s Best Racing. (It was the Ethan Allen Express the day before Saratoga opened, after all.) Steve Haskin, in his latest column, lists the last two among the racing outlets that have largely replaced newspapers in racetrack press boxes, which are now mainly populated by “free-lance writers or bloggers,” not the honorable “fraternity” of sports journalists who once smoked, drank, and typed their way to “the top of the food chain.” Haskin sees a worrisome change:

We may not realize it, but this is a microcosm of what is happening to the sport on all fronts, in that we have lost one of the main concepts of journalism — force the public to become interested, just as poker, NASCAR, wrestling, and mixed martial arts have done. Just as milk did years ago and insurance is doing now. The public has proven time and again they will buy anything if you make them. Make racing a product in demand and the newspapers will return, and so will the journalists.

Forcing the public to become interested in racing sometimes seems to me the primary mission of many of the freelance correspondents and bloggers now occupying the press box seats of the sports writers Haskin misses. (Noted: I don’t exclude myself from that bent; I work for the Breeders’ Cup on their digital media initiatives, such as this year’s dedicated Breeders’ Cup Challenge website, which is publishing original and aggregated content.) And they’re doing that (we’re doing that) via the channels people click, not newspapers.

Like many others, I was thrown last week at the news that the New York Daily News eliminated its racing coverage and laid off Jerry Bossert. He was the last daily turf writer at any of the city’s daily newspapers; he filed picks and recaps, wrote features and profiles, nipped at NYRA about track conditions, safety polices, and management. He covered his beat with diligence. Where does that kind of journalistic work — which includes oversight and accountability as part of an independent mission — fit into a never-ending stream filled with positive stories and viral content? It has to fit somewhere — it’s necessary. This might make me as much a weirdo as buying a print magazine at a newsstand, but I believe in journalism as a force for public good, not for public relations.

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