JC / Railbird

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 Race Horse 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 too-true observation, “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.