JC / Railbird


Suffolk Deal Struck

It’s official! Live racing is on! After more than six weeks of tense negotiations, the bitter dispute between Suffolk Downs and the NEHBPA over the 2011 meet ended today in a two-year agreement on purses, days, and the simulcasting revenue split. The track will run 80 days for $8.25 million (that’s average daily purses of $103,125), and will split net simulcasting revenue 50-50 with the horsemen. If handle reaches a certain benchmark by June 30, an additional five days of racing will be run. The NEHBPA agreed to remain neutral on legislation to reduce race days; Suffolk agreed to keep the barn area open from late April to mid-November. Racing is expected to begin in May. Stall applications, the condition book, and the schedule will be available in coming weeks.

“As we strive to offer a competitive racing program that is attractive to fans and horsemen, we are gratified that the NEHBPA has agreed that fewer days for higher purses is preferable to the alternative,” said Suffolk COO Chip Tuttle in a statement. “Having reached an agreement, we look forward to the 2011 racing season and to working together on expanded gaming legislation in Massachusetts that will create jobs, generate revenue for the state, benefit the local economy and ensure a strong foundation for racing here in the future.”

It’s been confirmed that the Aqueduct and Gulfstream simulcasting signals, which had been blocked as part of the dispute, will be restored on Saturday. Signals pulled in solidarity by Maryland, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Oregon horsemen could also be on as soon as tomorrow. (Of course, the question is how many horseplayers — who have scattered to Rockingham and other nearby simulcasting parlors over the past month — will return to Suffolk.)

8:45 PM Update: “[The NEHBPA] is very pleased it was able to successfully and amicably negotiate with Suffolk Downs a fair and equitable purse agreement for 2011 that also provides for a fair and equitable sharing of revenue for the year 2012,” reads the horsemen’s press release. “It looks forward to partnering with Suffolk Downs for a successful race meet in 2011 and subsequent years and seeks to develop a strong and amicable relationship with Suffolk Downs that permits the parties to work toward their mutual advantage.”

Also noted in the press release: “The decision to compromise the dispute by agreeing to accept less than the state-mandated minimum of 100 days of live racing was reached only after a majority of the Board of Directors of the NEHBPA concluded that in the absence of such compromise there would be no live racing …” Suffolk was quite serious about running a shorter meet, a justified position given the steep drop in handle since 2007.

More on this matter from Lynne Snierson, who spoke with NEHBPA counsel Frank Frisoli about the deal this evening. “[W]e looked at this and agreed to the 80 days because it was that or not have a meet,” he said. “This deal is in the best interest of our membership, the Massachusetts breeders, the farm industry, and all of the others involved.”

3/5/11 Addendum: “Did anyone apologize to the fans?” No, and why not?

Almost There

Suffolk Downs and the NEHBPA have reportedly agreed in principle to a deal for the 2011 meet. An official end to the acrimonious six-week dispute over purses, days, and the simulcasting revenue split is expected on Wednesday — once one small remaining point of contention is settled.

3/3/11 Update: Wednesday passed without announcements or news. The no-opposition letters are reportedly the sticking point. Updates, as available — here’s hoping we’ll know more on Thursday.

3/4/11 Update: Still no official word, no sign that signals have been restored.

10:30 AM Addendum: After several quiet days, unfortunate news. A source involved in the negotiations said this morning, “I thought we had a deal but it fell apart. If it doesn’t get done today we may be in for a long wait.” Talks continue. Updates, as developments or details become known.

7:30 PM Addendum: An agreement has been reached!

“Sink or Swim”

Lynne Snierson on the latest in the Suffolk Downs-NEHBPA dispute:

The general counsel for the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association said on the afternoon of Feb. 28 that negotiations have reached the “sink or swim” point on a contract resolution for 2011. The dispute is now in its sixth week.

“We have been in discussions today and they will continue on into the night,” said Frank Frisoli. “Suffolk talked to us and addressed the board (of directors). We are at the sink or swim point right now. I expect to be able to comment more on where we are tomorrow (March 1).”

Also noted: Massachusetts bettors crowded Rockingham this past weekend.

The Offer That Isn’t

While waiting on the next twist in the ongoing dispute over the 2011 meet between Suffolk Downs and the NEHBPA, I’d like to return to a point in the modified offer approved by the horsemen on Friday that didn’t make much sense. The group agreed to race 80 days, as the track proposed, if legislation to approve a race date reduction passed — if it didn’t, the horsemen agreed to race 100 days for the same total purses offered of $8.25 million.

The problem is that such a structure would bring average daily purses down to $82,500, the same level at which Suffolk calculated the horsemen’s February 10 proposal, based on revenue projections, and the reason the track rejected that offer — the figure was too close to the daily average of $79,000 being paid during the latter portion of the 2010 meet. Both sides agree an average in that range is too low to support racing, suggesting that the horsemen are now trying to have it both ways — the group concedes the 80 days, and the likelihood of the legislation it cannot agree to not oppose succeeding, even as it attempts to compel the track to run 100 days.

“The NEHBPA voted to accept a proposal that was never offered,” said a source close to the discussions. Suffolk specifically told the NEHBPA, said the source, that the $8.25 million was not in play for 100 days.

Which raises questions of what the horsemen’s gambit — characterized by the source as “cynical” — is meant to accomplish, and where discussions go from here. “The framework of this deal is essentially solving problems for the future,” NEHBPA lawyer Frank Frisoli said on Friday. That’s a hopeful assessment, one track management clearly doesn’t share. “The increase in purses was contingent upon one condition, neutrality on legislation to reduce the number of days required to simulcast, that the NEHBPA is unwilling to meet,” said Suffolk’s vice president of marketing and communications, Christian Teja, responding to the offer. “We will assess all our options, including legislative relief independent of the HBPA.”

Suffolk doesn’t need the horsemen’s approval to pursue its legislative agenda; the track doesn’t even need the horsemen’s agreement to run fewer dates. The state-mandated minimum is what’s required for the track to simulcast — Suffolk could announce a 30-day meet on Monday, so long as it was willing to cease simulcasting. As might be expected, the horsemen disagree. Because the MRC awarded Suffolk 100 days this year and it has been simulcasting, “The NEHBPA firmly believes SSR is now obligated under state law to conduct a live meet of at least 100 days of live racing,” the group notes in its February 25 proposal before agreeing to reduced days.

The situation is now quite uncertain. Suffolk offered $8.25 million for 75-80 days, plus five more days if handle was near what was it was last year by June 30, and a 50-50 simulcasting revenue split. It all hinged on neutrality — on the NEHBPA agreeing not to oppose the legislation that would make 80 days possible. The horsemen agreed on the 50-50 split, which they had sought from the start, and because they could not accept the no-opposition provision, to $8.25 million for 80 days, if a bill passes, or 100 days, which many still hope to run. It’s an impossible position, nodding to the economic and political realities of Massachusetts racing, but asserting a demand that nothing change.

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