JC / Railbird

Suffolk Downs’ Final, Final Finale

If I had to choose a moment to remember from the last weekend of racing at Suffolk Downs what would it be? It could be T.D. Thornton’s final call:

“They approach the quarter pole in the grand finale and they turn into the Suffolk Downs homestretch for the final time … 84 years of history behind them, half a furlong to the finish, and it’s all Catauga County, by seven on the line. Admiration was second, Shiloh Lane was third. Wow! What a long run it’s been, what a wild ride since 1935. Thanks, Suffolk Downs, for a lifetime of great memories!”

It could be paddock analyst Jessica Paquette’s heartfelt goodbye from the scale house roof before the horses left the paddock for the last time.

Or it could be the thunderstorm on Saturday that left the lights flickering in the grandstand and forced the cancellation of the last three races scheduled that day, including the $100,000 James B. Moseley Stakes — which, had it happened, would have honored the man who led the revival of the track in 1992 from a two-year shuttering. In the post-mortem, let it be noted that in its last days, the track remembered its history, recent and long past.

It could be the unexpected sight of a memorial near the winner’s circle, three people standing at the rail, a man shaking out ashes from a bag into the track’s dirt before they crossed themselves and prayed.

Or maybe the woman who, picking her way through puddles, sandals dangling from her hand, cried, “This is the last time I’ll walk barefoot across this track!” As if it were something she did many times. And who knows? Maybe she did. A lot can happen in 84 years, and a lot happened at Suffolk Downs. Tom Smith discovered Seabiscuit. Bill Mott brought Cigar to Boston to win the Mass Cap in 1995 and 1996. Waquoit made his hometown proud in the 1987 Mass Cap.

Those are the high points. Everyone knows them. Most of what happened at Suffolk Downs happened out of the spotlight — it happened to the families who bred and trained horses and worked the grandstand and the backstretch for generations. It happened to the women who wanted to be jockeys and found a track where they could get a foothold. It happened to the kid who came to the track with his dad and then snuck in as a teenager and then made a career in the game. It happened to the young-ish woman who went to Suffolk one day and found the beauty and meaning that so many had before in horses and handicapping. (Am I getting weepy right now? I might be.)

But the moment that I might choose would be the sound of the crowd cheering when the field for the fifth race on Sunday went to the gate after another storm delay. The rain might have chased some people away, but most of the crowd jammed into the grandstand seats and waited the downpour out. They roared and clapped and whooped when the bugle sounded and the horses began to leave the paddock. For a second, the grandstand was a wall of sound, what it was when I went to my first Mass Cap in 2004 and Offlee Wild nipped Funny Cide for the win, what it must have been for so many races before.

It was the sound of people at the track, happy to be there.

Photos from the final weekend at Suffolk Downs:

Jessica Paquette delivers her paddock analysis for the first race at Suffolk Downs on June 29, 2019 from atop New England champion Mr. Meso
A dream comes true for Jessica Paquette, who rode New England champion — and very good pony — Mr. Meso into the paddock on Saturday and delivered her analysis of the day’s first race from the saddle.

Saint Alfred and Desert Dotty go head to head in the stretch of the Thomas F. Moran Stakes for Massachusetts-breds on July 30
Tammi Piermarini and Saint Alfred (inside) outrun Luis Quinones and Desert Dotty to win the Thomas F. Moran Stakes for Massachusetts-breds on Sunday.

Tammi Piermarini and Saint Alfred galloping back to the winner's circle after the Moran Stakes
Piermarini and Saint Alfred galloping back after winning the Moran. At the end of Suffolk’s six-day meet, Piermarini topped the track’s jockey standings once again (and for the last time), with 10 wins and $347,650 in earnings.

Jockey J.D. Acosta in the paddock at Suffolk Downs
J.D. Acosta, second in the standings with eight wins and earnings of $317,550.

The crowd along the grandstand rail at Suffolk Downs
The crowd on the grandstand rail. An estimated 12,311 attended the races on Sunday; the figure for both days was estimated at more than 21,000.

Pouring rain
A thunderstorm delayed the start of the fifth race on Sunday.

Unsaddling after the sixth race, as reflected in the scale house window
A reflection in the scale house window of a horse being unsaddled.

The crowd along the clubhouse rail at Suffolk Downs
The Sunday crowd along the clubhouse rail.

Dirt flies up as the field heads to the clubhouse turn in race 10 on June 30 at Suffolk Downs
Dirt flies up as the field for race 10 on Sunday — the final race — runs past the finish line for the first time and toward the clubhouse turn.

Catauga County and rider Andy Hernandez Sanchez cross the finish line first in race 10 on June 30 at Suffolk Downs
Maiden no more, and now a name for racing history: Catauga County, with rider Andy Hernandez Sanchez, wins the last race at Suffolk Downs.

The connections celebrate as Catauga County returns to the winner's circle
Catauga County returns to the winner’s circle for trainer Neil Morris and owner PathFinder Racing. The 4-year-old Violence gelding paid $5.60 to win.

Andy Hernandez Sanchez takes selfies with well-wishers after he wins the last race at Suffolk Downs
Signing autographs, taking selfies: Hernandez Sanchez finds himself popular with the Suffolk fans after winning the track’s last race.

People cross the track to take their photos in front of the infield tote board
People walked across the track after racing was done to take photos — and to get their photos taken in front of the infield tote board.