JC / Railbird

“It’s Dying”

I went to Suffolk Downs on Thursday afternoon to see a horse and place a Kentucky Derby future wager. There was a small clubhouse crowd of regulars marking up the Form and trading stories about the horses they almost had. In the grandstand, the TVs were turned on, but the first floor concourse was empty and I watched a race alone before heading out the far doors and toward the backstretch. I called my trainer friend to ask in which barn I’d find the horse, and, as long as I had him on the phone, asked what he thought of Suffolk’s decision to cancel its open stakes program this year. “It’s dying,” he said. “It’s the clearest sign yet that the track is dying.”

That’s pessimism. And my friend’s not the only one who feels that way. Another trainer told John Connolly of the Boston Herald that, “We’re looking at the beginning of the end here,” and connected the track’s decision to the state lottery’s announcement the day before that a new Keno-style horseracing game would be unveiled this fall. Suffolk COO Robert O’Malley insists the call was made for strictly financial reasons. “We had a terrible first quarter,” said O’Malley. “I’m a half-million behind in money for purses. And the [purse account], from which we got $1.2 million in 2003, and $800,000 last year, will give us only $200,000 this year. The account is practically empty. I’m just about $1 million short, and this will give us $1 million in savings.”

So, canceling the MassCap and the rest of the open stakes saves a million this year. And the year after that? “The handwriting is on the wall for racing around here,” O’Malley said. “We were forced to give up the frills this year with the elimination of the MassCap, and if we don’t get slots this year, or are adversely affected by a virtual racing game, next year we would probably be forced to cut daily purses to survive” (Daily Item of Lynn). Of course, if Suffolk does that, it will be even more difficult to attract horsemen to Massachusetts for the short meet. A new racing bill must be passed by the end of 2005; perhaps hope for Suffolk can be found in the state legislature, either by the passage of an equitable racing bill that props up purse money, or by slots legislation.

But slots or state subsidies are only short-term solutions. I confess: I’m a reluctant slots supporter. I’m eager to see Suffolk Downs survive, and if slots can buy the track a few more years, I say bring them in. Yet expanded gaming won’t solve New England’s long-term racing woes, and slots won’t change the reality that the land Suffolk sits on is more valuable as development than it is as a track. The track has two train stops, it’s minutes from downtown Boston, the airport, and the harbor, and it’s one of the largest (if not the largest) parcels of open land in a densely built metro area with an overheated real estate market. It would take more than slots to change that equation.

Thoroughbred racing will leave New England. It’s inevitable. Stan Bergstein, in a Daily Racing Form column on the intersection of racing, globalization, and technology, quotes a lecture given by Bill Shanklin at the recent Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Harness Tracks of America joint conference:

Shanklin told the track operators that all of the graduate business students worldwide could be taught by 200 professors using simulcasting and wireless technology … noting that a university in Philadelphia broadcasts a class at 2 p.m. Eastern so that students in various countries around the world are able to “attend” during their normal waking hours. “How many racetracks would it take to supply the world’s demand for simulcasting and account wagering?” Shanklin asks.

Not many, I’d answer. The major circuits — New York, California, Florida, Kentucky — will find ways to survive, as will tracks such as Oaklawn that host boutique meets enticing to tourists and trainers with quality horses. Tracks like Suffolk, without enough purse money to draw the really good horses, and thus schedule the races attractive to big simulcasting handle, will close.

I think that’s the saddest thing I’ve written on this site.

Related: State Senator Michael Morrissey (D-Quincy) has scheduled a public meeting on the proposed state lottery racing game for Thursday, April 14, at 10 a.m. in room A2 of the State House.