JC / Railbird


Opening Day

If you’re a fan of Thoroughbred racing, or anyone affiliated with Thoroughbred racing, in Massachusetts, then today is probably a bittersweet day, emphasis on the bitter — the state’s first slots parlor opens this afternoon at Plainridge, the state’s sole harness track. “The casino is projecting $20 million a month in gaming revenue.” Nine percent of that revenue will flow into the Race Horse Development Fund, set up to support horse racing in the Commonwealth with a split of 75 percent for Thoroughbred purses and breeding, 25 percent for Standardbreds. Millions have been banked, millions more will be added.

Purses at the harness track are already running higher:

Plainridge offered $38,300 in purses on Tuesday’s 10-race card. As recently as 2013, the average purse was $2,700 and last year they averaged $30,000 but were overpaid by $900,000.

“We’ve already turned $3,000 claimers into $4,000 claimers and purses can only go up. It’s all positive,” said trainer and driver Jim Hardy.

Bill Abdelnour, a director of the Harness Horseman’s Association of New England, told the Sun Chronicle, “People can pretty much count on harness racing being around for a long time.”

The same can’t be said of Thoroughbred racing, which is looking for dates and a home after Suffolk Downs and Mohegan Sun lost their bid for a Boston-area casino license to Wynn in September 2014. An application to run three days this year at the track is before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission; an update on the application is on the agenda for the commission’s June 25 meeting. The three-day proposal was criticized as not doing enough for New England horsemen in a public hearing two weeks ago.

Neither breed has enjoyed robust days in recent years — attendance and handle have been in decline for both — and how Plainridge won the slots license and Suffolk Downs lost the casino is a more complicated story than fits this post, but Thoroughbred racing was the bigger draw, employer, and revenue generator of the two by far. It’s just the latest odd turn on the long road to expanded gaming in Massachusetts that as the doors open on casinos, the future of Thoroughbreds in the state is what’s in doubt.

Slots Losers

As maddening, petty, and inept as I found New York state politics during the four years I lived in Brooklyn — particularly when it came to anything having to do with the Aqueduct racino or OTB — the explanation for the ostensibly irrational often lay in asking, cui bono? Because someone was usually, pretty nakedly, making out in campaign cash, political power, or patronage jobs. Not so in Massachusetts state politics, which are no less maddening, etc., for reasons that more often seem opaque, personal, or tribal.

Take, for instance, the apparently dead expanded gaming legislation. Never before, in almost two decades of debate, has Massachusetts come so close to allowing casinos and racinos. In the final hours of the legislative session on July 31, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill authorizing three casinos and two racetrack slots licenses. The Senate approved the same, two votes shy of a veto-proof margin. The governor, up for re-election, said he’d accept three casinos (his original stance), but only one racino, a compromise position he then backed off, returning the final bill with an amendment effectively killing racetrack slots. Explained Patrick of his reversal:

“We do this over and over again in the Commonwealth: We yield to the short-term interests of a few powerful people, and we set aside the long-term, best economic and social interests of the Commonwealth.”

There are those holding out hope that the legislature will be called back into session and that a resolution will be reached. I’d price that happening as a longshot so long the tote board tops out at 99-1. House leader Robert DeLeo — whose district includes Suffolk Downs and Wonderland, and who’s expended tremendous political capital accomplishing more than anyone ever has on the issue — has dug in, insisting on two racinos. “Asking me to go further than that is truly unreasonable,” he told the Boston Globe. Senate president Therese Murray is skeptical a deal could be reached, and quietly, stubbornly opposes calling lawmakers back.

Meanwhile, Plainridge, the state’s sole harness track, has already announced layoffs. Suffolk Downs has made no statements, but the rumors about the track’s future are wild and ominous.

Cui bono? No one.

2:45 PM Addendum: Tweets @jenmontfort, “It’s just so disappointing to be so close and to let political tomfoolery (on ALL sides) get in the way.” Exactly. And yet, it’s hardly surprising. This is the state, after all, where tomfoolery once led to the simulcasting law expiring on the eve of the Florida Derby.