JC / Railbird

Suffolk Blues

Barry Roos on the latest sign of New England racing’s decline:

Sadly it appears the end may be near for racing in New England. The HBPA is blocking the NYRA signal as no agreement was reached with the horsemen. After the worst meet in racing history and no extended gambling passed last year, I didn’t think there would be much chance of racing returning. I figured Suffolk would just fade away.

When live harness racing ceased at Rockingham Park last year, it went with a whimper. The same could happen at Suffolk Downs, the last link to a once great thoroughbred racing circuit. Neither the Boston Globe nor the Boston Herald published even a paragraph on the dispute between the New England horsemen and track management over 2011 purses and days that resulted in the NYRA signal being blocked. The horsemen allege negotiations not done in good faith (PDF), the track that the financial situation is grim:

“The unfortunate fact of the matter is that absent expanded gaming, the business model for 100 days of racing here is not sustainable,” said Chip Tuttle, Suffolk Downs chief operating officer. “The horsemen are having a very difficult time coming to grips with that.”

We’ve been here before with Suffolk. After the stakes schedule was cut in 2005, I posted a pessimistic piece melodramatically titled, “It’s Dying,” and worried about the inevitable end of thoroughbred racing in New England. The economics have only worsened since, but the track, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, still has found a way to open for racing each spring. Management has been betting on slots, and in 2010, thanks to intense lobbying and a state leadership largely in agreement on expanded gaming, their wager came tantalizingly close to paying off, before the bill foundered over the number of racinos the governor would approve.

A new casino bill was filed at the start of the 2011 state legislative session. The game’s still on, and I’m willing to bet, racing will be too, for another year.

Whether that’s good, at the likely purse level, is another matter. Suffolk is offering $75,000 per day for the state-mandated minimum of 100 days. The horsemen want $106,000, which Suffolk countered by offering reduced race dates. Daily purses of $75,000 would be the lowest on the East Coast, and the racing, for that sum or $106,000 per day, over 100 days or 67 days, is certain to be a reprise of last year’s bottom-level cards. That’s not only bad for bettors, it’s bad for the horses and humans on the backstretch.


Is it really surprising that almost a full year after Monmouth laid out a road map for what could be a viable future for tracks with too many dates, declining handle and purses along with it, the various racing fiefdoms are still holding onto this idea that slots are a cure to maintaining what is plainly unsustainable?

A year on and everyone in the industry is still kicking that can down the road, hoping for better fortunes around the bend like the slot junkies they one day hope will fill their empty racetrack grandstands. All that kicking and hoping seems to me to be accelerating the fall of racing in certain jurisdictions.

Posted by o_crunk on January 31, 2011 @ 10:47 am

Mr. Crunk –

Good point. Maryland racing had a great opportunity to implement a Monmouth-style purse structure and embolden their racing product. Instead we’ll be getting served up more of the same.

The slots revenue cash cow does not figure to last more than 5 more years. What then?

Posted by The_Knight_Sky on January 31, 2011 @ 11:38 am

As I said on a recent post over at MIbredclaimer.wordpress, the problem isn’t too many racetracks, it’s too many race dates.

There will be an extreme decline in horse population beginning in 2012, so if certain tracks don’t plan for that now they’ll just be extinct by then.

Posted by EJXD2 on January 31, 2011 @ 12:27 pm


It’s even more than that at places like Suffolk imo.

Sure you and I can say why doesn’t Suffolk have a boutique meet, up the stock and up the purses. It is good for the handle and good for racing because there is another avenue for bettors to play and people to watch. But for the horsemen there, it does them no good. They always want race dates. That’s because a lot at small tracks are owner/trainers and can invest $2000 in a horse with expenses that are very small when compared to outside owners. They love a lot of dates and cheaper horses so they can be a part of racing. A boutique meet kills them, just like closing the track would.

I think 5 years or so ago the LA horsemen assn wanted 3 claimers at one of the two small tracks, and a bunch of dates. The owner of one of the tracks offered out that they simply pick up a check once a week for $X instead per horse, because lots of race dates with 3 claimers was something he could not support.

It’s one of those parts of the game that as a customer we can scratch our heads of course, but it is a part of the game, especially with slots.


Posted by PTP on January 31, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

It’s a shame that racing is regulated by state because year-round racing definitely can work using a circuit. If Michigan and Ohio worked together to conduct 200 dates at its four tracks it could be successful.
I agree with a lot of your points: You need a bottom, and there’s certain levels that players in the game need to achieve to be profitable.
I don’t agree with staying open just to support the bottom level while losing money. Solutions need to be found.

Posted by EJXD2 on January 31, 2011 @ 1:16 pm


I get the idea that they all can’t have boutique meets with good horses and full fields. It would be naive to think it can happen at every track. At some point those cheap races have to run. I get all that.

But Monmouth did some interesting things last year, among them was paying a percentage of the purse to every starter. Of course Suffolk’s purse structure is not even in the same ballpark as Monmouth’s, so we’re talking about an *idea* that may not scale in comparison. But even if it doesn’t scale, it’s *something*. And that something is certainly better than what increasingly seems like the alternative of *nothing*.

I don’t pretend to have any answers for Suffolk. Or even that I understand the economics of owning horses. But it does seem to me that whatever Monmouth did last year, even if it doesn’t scale to other operations, is certainly worth looking at as a way forward. Though it doesn’t surprise me that many industry stake holders haven’t copied on trying to replicate MTH”s small success at an even lower level, it does surprise me that none of those ideas appear to be on the table anywhere.

Posted by o_crunk on January 31, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

I’m not a proponent of it, I am just laying out the thinking. It is difficult to get anything done at some small tracks.

In Ontario harness racing is a microcosm and a good test case. Right now there are something like 15 tracks. $5000 claimers go for $3000 tops at places. Handle at these slots venues are $20,000 or so, some higher than that but you get the picture. A few years ago I tried a small stable for a bit of fun with cheaper horses. We invested in about ten. We would win a lot of races but have no money. The purses were too small.

But when you said “if we decrease dates by 20%, purses might go up enough to make horse owning viable for me as an outside owner”, you got flamed (some horsemen organizations at tracks even went so far as to go on “strike” over lost dates.

It’s why we see this little cottage industry – open a form to MNR and all you see are conglomerates at 2-5 each race, or trainer owned horses. We are supposed to be adding new owners, not having people buy $2000 horses to race in a 5 claimer, with $1000 a month expenses for $8700.

It’s simply a mess.

On the surface a lot of things seem common sense, but there are fiefdoms demanding their slice and they have clout. It is easier to do nothing, as we see in so many places. Hitching fees as OC says might work at a MTH, but there is not enough cash to make them work at a SUF, imo.

My 2 cents.


Posted by PTP on January 31, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

How can you compare Ontario to a jurisdiction without any subsidy?

But yeah, other than that I completely agree. The places that get slots are mostly closed shops thanks to a take-care-of-your-own mentality (i.e., look out for number one).

Posted by EJXD2 on January 31, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

I just used that because the same principles apply at a SUF and a little Ontario track like I mentioned, slots or no slots: Too low a purse, too many cheap horses, no outside owners for critical mass to support the game….. but when/if people try to make it better by changing it, the door gets slammed and the status quo rules.

It’s a really complex problem borne from a love of the game, entitlement mindset, what have you, in a falling revenue business.


Posted by PTP on January 31, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

Ed wrote:

>>the problem isn’t too many racetracks, it’s too many race dates.

It’s both.
And…too little cooperation between the numerous racetracks within the state. Simply look at Florida with Hialeah infringing on Calder and Gulfstream, and to a lesser degree Tampa Bay Downs.

Same thing in New Jersey. When the NJSEA hammers out and agreement with their subsidies they give it primarily to their own tracks. Freehold raceway does not see much of it. Atlantic City race course, zippo.

Too many racetracks are a problem. If anything, some of them are simply better off being permanent simulcasting venues. In this era, we must but NOT build anymore racetracks but OTW’s with a sports bar concept
and pipe in the best horse racing products out there.

There used to be a time when we lived without Zia Park,
Sunland Park, Hoosier and Indiana Downs, just fine. When slots revenue dwindles down where will the horses come from? Certainly it won’t be worthwhile to breed more lowly $5,000 Indiana-breds to fill the cards.

Horse racing must start to live without subsidies, less tracks AND on less racing dates.

Posted by The_Knight_Sky on January 31, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

[…] read. The NEHBPA’s stance belies broader trends in racing; there are reasons contraction is a hot topic. The we’ll-go-elsewhere threat was tried at Rockingham; there is no live racing at Rockingham […]

Posted by Jessica Chapel / Railbird v2 - The Other Side on February 3, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

[…] Downs with a counter-proposal to the track’s January 26 offer. It’s a bid to end an impasse that has led to the blocking of simulcasting from Florida, New York, Ohio, and Oregon, and […]

Posted by Jessica Chapel / Railbird v2 - Negotiations to Resume? on February 9, 2011 @ 8:40 pm