Suffolk Downs management and the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association are keeping the lamp lit for the Massachusetts Thoroughbred industry by restoring live racing with the first of three 2015 festival days Sept. 5.
But serious questions about the long-term future remain on the front burner.
Central to the issue is interest from The Stronach Group in leasing the 80-year-old track, a year after Sterling Suffolk Racecourse announced live racing was no longer economically viable when its gaming partner failed to win the single Boston-area casino license. As rumors continue to rage about The Stronach Group's level of involvement and imminent interest, chief operating officer Tim Ritvo set the record straight in a conversation with Blood-Horse.
"All we can do at this stage is stand on the sidelines," Ritvo said. "What we want to say to the horsemen and the Sterling Group is that if you guys are looking for an operator, looking for someone to talk to that operates racetracks, we're here."
Ritvo and Chip Tuttle, COO of Suffolk Downs, reiterated their previous statements that the two entities have engaged in conversations since live racing came to an end last October.
"We threw our name in the hat when it looked like Suffolk wasn't going to run anymore because they didn't get the slots," Ritvo said. "We said we would look at an opportunity to lease the place. We asked how can we help, and how could we leverage some of our other assets to see if there was a way that we could come up with a model that would work in New England.
"As we dug in further and further, we saw that the opportunity of that happening, because of the ability to lease the building at a reasonable rate, or that the horsemen were OK that they would only run three days, made it impossible for us to do anything."
Ritvo said a live meet of no fewer than 40 days is required to provide incentive for The Stronach Group, as long as all of the numbers add up in the positive column. Under a state statute passed in March, Suffolk Downs' operating license and simulcast rights were extended through July 31, 2016, with the mandate that live racing is conducted "from one to 50 days."
"We don't have a track in New England but we like the market," Ritvo said. "We like the financial layout. We operate tracks around the country with a 50/50 split on pari-mutuel handle. In New England the operator was going to be keeping 100% of that pari-mutuel handle and the horsemen were going to run for slots money only (with distributions from the state's new Race Horse Development Fund), and that made it a very attractive situation.
"Once again, if the horsemen don't want to run more (days), I don't understand how we could contribute anything."
The New England HBPA board of directors had aspirations of leasing Suffolk Downs and running a 65-day meet in 2015, as evidenced by its filing of a "placeholder" application for as many days by the Oct. 1, 2014, deadline set by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. But when it became apparent that a shortage of both sufficient funds to cover a portion of the operating and administrative costs for the season and of race-ready horses available to compete, three days of live racing was the best that could be pulled together for 2015.
"We're not looking to be disruptive or get in anybody's way," Ritvo said. "We were actually trying to come in and say that if the operators do not want to run a 40-day meet but had to, we would be there to basically look at the economics of it. We believe there is enough simulcasting money, especially at 100%, that you could run a full schedule of racing.
"But the legislators and the horsemen who are in charge basically said they are OK with running three days. If that's OK with everybody, why do we have to put our nose in there?"
Without owning the property or having an agreement in place, The Stronach Group can't plan for the future as it concerns New England racing. That doesn't mean the company hasn't thought about it.
"We're interested in racing," Ritvo said. "We have facilities all over the country. Being an independent operator is a lot harder for facilities these days than it used to be, when coordinating your racing schedules. The reason we're looking at New England is that we'd probably look at a spot on the calendar where we would take 40 days off in Maryland and try to coordinate those race schedules, the same as what we're trying to do in Delaware and the Mid-Atlantic.
"The synergies from our racing offices and everything else could work out nice somewhere else, so we wouldn't have to utilize one facility for 200 days of racing and we could spread it out a little bit. We are a racing company and we love racing. We have been successful operators in different venues. Gulfstream Park has gone from a 60-day meet to a 230-day meet, California has increased days every year, and Maryland has increased days. Where we go, we look to increase days and not shrink them."
That is exactly what the New England HBPA and Suffolk Downs are now working toward.
Tuttle told Blood-Horse that he and the New England HBPA, which is the only horsemen's organization legally authorized to enter into an agreement with the track through the length of the existing contract that expires July 31, 2016, have just begun discussions on a longer meet for next year. That discussion is an exclusive two-way conversation at this stage.
"It's impossible for us to do anything if we can't do a lease there because we don't own the track," Ritvo said. "But we are still interested in negotiating or talking about doing a lease and operating an extended meet there if that is mandated by the gaming commission. We're still around, and if there is any interest, we're a phone call away."
Said Tuttle: "I have a great deal of respect for The Stronach Group."
In related news, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission Sept. 3 approved a request from Suffolk Downs to lower pari-mutuel takeout rates from 19% to 15% on win, place, and show bets and from 26% to 15% on multiple wagers.