JC / Railbird

New England

The Rock

Rockingham Park gate in 2006
Rockingham Park gate, 2006

Reflecting on the end of Rockingham Park:

“It’s one of those places, like the house you grew up in, that you think will always be there. It’s so strange and sad to find out that it’s really going to be gone,” said Donna Barton Brothers, who was an apprentice in Rockingham’s jockey colony in 1987 before she went on to become one of the sport’s most successful female riders and an on-air analyst and reporter for NBC Sports and TVG.

“That track was where I cut my teeth as far as riding goes,” she said. “I learned so much about riding there from people like Phil Ernst and Bennie Carrasco and some of those really good, old riders like Carl Gambardella and Rudy Baez, who for whatever reason ended up at Rockingham. I rode with some world class riders.”

Speaking of the greats, old black-and-white photos of Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longdon, and Bill Shoemaker still adorn the walls of Rockingham’s clubhouse from their time here. Pat Day hung his tack in the jocks’ room when he was a bug, and Chris McCarron to this day is revered as the local kid who made good.

Trainer Shug McGaughey won his first race at Rockingham and fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel captured the one and only $500,000 New England Classic with Marquetry in 1991 as part of the nationally televised American Championship Racing Series.

The track, which hasn’t hosted live racing since 2010, will close permanently on August 31, following a sale of its remaining 120 acres. “So the simulcasting, the poker room, the shows will all be done at that point in time,” [general manager Ed] Callahan said. “We’ll get things cleaned up a little bit, have an auction here of a whole bunch of equipment and furniture and memorabilia.” For those concerned about the fate of any remaining historical items or archival materials, note that, per a report in the Blood-Horse:

[T]he racing memorabilia, trophies, and artwork with the greatest historical significance will be donated to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, the New England Sports Museum, and the New Hampshire Museum of History, among others.

The auction is scheduled for September 24 and 25, time TBD.

Searching for a Way Forward

Penn National, George Carney, and as-yet-unidentified revenue streams. If you follow horse racing — if you follow Massachusetts racing — it sounds like the set-up to a bad joke, doesn’t it? But those are the options for continuing Thoroughbred racing in the state that the Massachusetts Gaming Commission will discuss at a meeting next Thursday. “Empty posturing,” said Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle, who gave notice of layoffs to the state Labor department and 176 track workers on Wednesday.

The Commission apparently plans to ask Penn National about the possibility of a Thoroughbred meet. “It’s something we have not looked at,” VP of racing Christopher McErlean told Lynne Snierson, “but in the future, who knows?” The company is currently constructing a slots parlor at Plainridge; its renovations at the harness track don’t include a dirt or turf course.

Carney, and his son Christopher, owners of the Brockton Fairgrounds and the defunct dog racing track Raynham Park, are planning to request 2015 dates for their five-furlong dirt fairground course, which hasn’t been used since 2001. “It might not be big, glitzy, and glamorous, but it worked for us,” said Christopher Carney, extolling the virtues of a bullring track to Snierson:

Carney reasoned that since the dirt track is six furlongs and there is no turf course, out-of-town outfits would not ship in to compete against locals, as they have done at Suffolk Downs.

That sounds like a great racing product, just what the bettors love. Why such racing would appeal to some horsemen — and why, in the short-term, it might even be desirable as a source of jobs — is understandable, but there’s no shot that kind of racing survives long-term, and not only because it would attract so little attention and handle. Before the expanded gaming legislation passed, there were state legislators clamoring to reduce or eliminate the monies going into the Race Horse Development Fund so that it could be used for local or school aid. The subject hasn’t come up lately, partly because there hasn’t been any money, other than the Plainridge license fee, but mostly, because the state economy and budget aren’t stressed. When there’s a slump or shortfall, the RHDF will become a target. Purses or textbooks? It’ll be an easy choice.

That Penn or Carney are what’s on the table is depressing. Racing at Suffolk might not have been the best, but track management didn’t neglect safety or aftercare issues, and the work they were doing with the state Racing Division in building a regulatory framework that relied on uniform rules and putting horse welfare first hinted at the quality of racing that could have been, even if average daily purses (with the RHDF money) still didn’t reach the top tier.

Two links to leave with —

Jen Montfort stands up for Suffolk Downs:

Yes, it looks like parts of it haven’t been updated since the 50s, and you could probably stage an Olympic event based on navigating the undulating concrete floor. But they very well could’ve completely let the place go these past years, and they didn’t. It’s clean. The paint isn’t peeling. For a plant that is over 75 years old it’s in pretty good condition. The landscaping is actually quite lovely. And in the summer there is absolutely no better place to sit in the stands to watch some racing, enjoy a breeze off the ocean, and see that lovely infield and the marsh and Atlantic Ocean beyond.

And Bill Finley says goodbye:

There was absolutely nothing pretentious about Suffolk Downs or the people who called it home. There were the old war horses like Rise Jim, Let Burn, Darby Gillic and jockeys who rode not for the glory but to put food on the table, guys named Carl Gambardella, Rudy Baez, Jack Penney, Vernon Bush. Saratoga was classier. Santa Anita was prettier. Churchill had the Kentucky Derby. No one at Suffolk Downs cared. Jealousy wasn’t part of their fabric …

It was a beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder type of love affair that a lot of us had with Suffolk Downs but the place really was special, in its own unique, unapologetic, Boston working class way.

It really was. (Is, for five more racing days.)

Way Back, In the 1970s

For $800:

Donnally confessed that he had every intention of finishing out of the money but was having trouble doing so because so many other jockeys were also restraining their horses.

New England racing, the Winter Hill gang, and one jockey’s story.

– – – – – 

Suffolk Downs notes: The Boston Globe profiles developer Richard Fields, “the track’s charismatic public face and largest shareholder” … Andria Terrill has been released from the hospital. The rider suffered three small skull fractures in an on-track accident on July 8 … Multiple stakes-placed Convocation (2nd, 2011 Westchester; 2nd, 2009 Suburban; 2nd, 2009 Dwyer) is entered for a $4,000 tag in the first race on Wednesday. It’s the 7-year-old gelding’s first start since finishing fourth at Belmont on May 9, when Trainer David Jacobson claimed him for $15,000. He’s had three works in the interim, none stellar, and is 9-5 on the morning line. [7/17/13: Convocation scratched.]

The 80-Day Compromise

In every deal, compromises are made. In the agreement made official on Friday between Suffolk Downs and the NEHBPA on the terms for the 2011 and 2012 meets, the track compromised by agreeing to an equal simulcasting revenue split; the horsemen compromised by agreeing to race 80 days.

Just as the split was a significant concession by Suffolk, so the days were for the NEHBPA, which had maintained until late in negotiations that 100 days were the minimum the horsemen could accept, in part to support the Massachusetts breeding program. Last week, the horsemen agreed to the shortened meet, but not to remain neutral on the legislation required to reduce days, a point the board ultimately conceded.

“We only conceded on the dates because from the onset Suffolk Downs made clear it would not run 100 days although state law required it to do so. So our only options were to either concede to Suffolk’s demands or compromise on days,” said NEHBPA counsel Frank Frisoli in an email, replying to the question of how the board had come to agreement on the matter of race dates.

Referring to the bill filed in the Massachusetts legislature that would allow Suffolk to race fewer than 100 days and continue simulcasting, Frisoli said that many on the NEHBPA board believed that if they didn’t agree to run a shorter meet, there would be no live racing at the track this year. It was 80 days or nothing — but the horsemen wanted some protection. “That proposed legislation delegates to the racing commission the right to excuse Suffolk from complying with state law as to the number of racing dates,” said Frisoli. “We advised Suffolk that was a deal killer.”

In exchange for accepting fewer race dates, the NEHBPA negotiated its non-opposition to the bill to apply only to the number of days required for simulcasting. “The NEHBPA will oppose the Petrucelli legislation and any other legislation which does anything more than reduce the minimum number of days to 80 for 2011 and 2012,” said Frisoli.

The terms of the agreement also provides the board with a powerful incentive to respect the neutrality provision in the hard-fought deal. “If any NEHBPA board member or employee takes action to oppose legislation to reduce dates, Suffolk can void the contract in which event the race meet will end,” said Frisoli. “I expect that our board members will comply with the contractual obligation, no matter how personally distasteful it may be to them.”

Frisoli, a horse owner of more than 35 years, said that he would “actively support” the legislation as the NEHBPA counsel. “I [will do what I] can to see that it passes in the belief that Suffolk Downs is entitled to the benefit of its contractual bargain and that the passage of the legislation would actually be of benefit to the NEHBPA in that it will ensure live meets for 2011 and 2012 and improve our relationship with Suffolk Downs.”

Now that the dispute is over, we can all look forward to the return of racing in East Boston. “The NEHBPA is delighted that we were able to reach an agreement,” said Frisoli. So are Massachusetts racing fans.

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