By Lynne Snierson
A day after the Massachusetts Gaming Commission took no action June 11 on the supplemental application by Suffolk Downs for three days of live racing in 2015, local horsemen remained deeply divided on the plan and whether it should be approved.
"The best-case scenario is that the commissioners table it or just say 'no' in a formal vote," said Bill Lagorio, who has been a trainer in New England for 30 years and serves as the spokesperson for the group of about 125 opponents of the plan.
"We are still moving forward with our plans to have live racing at Suffolk Downs on those three dates, and at the same time, we are hoping for a decision on the application very soon," said Lou Raffetto, a consultant to the New England affiliate of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and a spokesman for supporters among owners, trainers, breeders, and industry stakeholders. "We're hoping for an affirmative decision very soon."
The application is for live Thoroughbred racing, supported by steeplechase racing, and three stakes races restricted to Massachusetts-breds on three Saturdays—July 11, Aug. 8, and Sept. 5. Purses would be $500,000 per day, owners would receive a $200 runner's reward, and trainers would get an $800 shipping bonus.
"Tell me how that helps the local horsemen. Our members are struggling and can't pay their bills," Lagorio said. "We have people losing their farms."
"Horsemen from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania will ship in their horses, and take our money and go home, laughing all the way to the bank," said opponent Dale Salim, who also said he is the largest Thoroughbred breeder in Massachusetts.
At a June 11 hearing in Boston, the five commissioners announced at the outset that they would neither enter into deliberations nor vote on the matter that day. Instead, they listened to 90 minutes of often heated and emotional testimony from ardent supporters, as well as to those standing staunchly opposed to the plan.
"I firmly believe that the three days, with a festival of racing on each, can be successful," Raffetto maintained the day after the hearing. "We all wish we were able to run 50 days, 30 days, or even 20 days. We do not have enough money to lease the track and pay purses. We do not have enough horses ready to compete. The three days is the best we can do."
Suffolk management announced last September that live racing would no longer be economically feasible after its gaming partner, Mohegan Sun, was not awarded the single Boston-area casino license by the MGC. Since then, the ownership group has worked with the NEHBPA on a two-year lease agreement while it works on long-term plans to develop the 160-acre property.
The track's racing license was extended as a part of legislation passed in March, allowing Suffolk, which did not apply for 2015 racing dates by the Oct. 1 deadline, to continue to offer full-card simulcasts through July 31, 2016.
Under the agreement, the horsemen would operate the meet, but they would still need the commission's approval to use a portion of the monies sitting in escrow in the state's new Race Horse Development Fund to cover a portion of the operating and administrative costs. The RHDF is fueled by a percentage of licensing fees from three future casinos and the new Plainridge Park Casino slot machine facility, set to open June 24, plus a percentage of the profits from all four gaming enterprises.
"I don't consider Suffolk Downs to be a racetrack anymore, so leave them right out of the picture, unless they want to come up to the table," Lagorio said June 12. "If Suffolk Downs came up to the table and asked what we're looking for, I would tell them 50 days. If you can't do that, step aside, and then the simulcasting (rights and fees) comes back to us, the horsemen."
While the arguments on Suffolk's application remained heated, there was still no word from the MGC on when a decision might be expected.
Commissioner Gayle Cameron said after the June 11 hearing that the MGC would wait until its legal department and racing director did their due diligence and made recommendations. There is another commission meeting scheduled for June 25, but Cameron said it may not be possible for the application to be back on the agenda.
Meanwhile, the small window of opportunity for a single-day racing festival July 11 at Suffolk Downs, which laid off all employees except for a skeleton staff of roughly 75 people last fall, is closing fast.
"We worked very hard with the HBPA and the Massachusetts breeders to come to an agreement that would allow us to have live racing this year," said Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle. "We await the decision of the gaming commission. Until then, we are standing by."