By Lynne Snierson
Negotiations on a lease agreement between the management of Suffolk Downs and officials of the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association remain on track, contrary to a published report, leaving a glimmer of hope that there will be live racing at the track in 2015.
"We never closed down the talks. We're still talking, and we intend to keep talking. We want a win-win situation for both parties and we're still negotiating to achieve that," said NEHBPA executive director Bruce Patten on the evening of Dec. 18.
After the conclusion of a meeting of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission that lasted into late afternoon, the website of the Boston Globe reported that talks between the two parties had broken down and consequently, there likely would be no live racing at the 80-year-old track next year.
Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle also dispelled that by telling The Blood-Horse, "We talked with the horsemen today and we'll continue to talk to the horsemen."
Track owners announced in September that they would not apply for a 2015 racing license after their gaming partner, Mohegan Sun, failed to win the competitive bid for the single Boston area casino license. In the wake of the decision, the horsemen expressed interest in leasing the property. The two parties have engaged in discussions that both sides termed "amiable" since the 2014 meet ended Oct. 4.
Nonetheless, the negotiations have changed scope in recent weeks.
The NEHBPA, which filed a "placeholder" application for one day of live racing to meet the MGC's deadline of Oct. 1, came back in November and filed a subsequent application for the minimum 65 days of live racing as currently mandated by state law. But with no economically feasible agreement to run the full meet completed with Suffolk Downs, the horsemen have since rescinded that application. Its one-day application remains in place.
Meanwhile, Suffolk Downs continues to investigate ways to remain open for simulcasting in 2015 for one year only. Tuttle reiterated what he told The Blood-Horse on Nov. 21 by saying,"We're looking for ways to continue to stay open as a simulcast facility to preserve jobs as we plan our development of the property.
"Suffolk Downs being open as a simulcasting facility is the only way that there would ever be a possibility for the HBPA to conduct a meet there. If we are completely shut down, there is no scenario under which they would be able to conduct a meet."
To pay purses, the NEHBPA hopes to tap into the considerable share of future gaming revenue dedicated by the state's 2011 expanded gaming law to the new Race Horse Development. But MGC regulations at this time will not allow that fund, which will grow to tens of millions of dollars once the gaming facilities come online, to cover operating expenses.
The horsemen are also looking into ways to acquire simulcasting rights. While legislative approval would be required for track ownership or the horsemen to offer simulcasting without live Thoroughbred racing, there is precedent established in Massachusetts.
Raynham Park, a former greyhound track, has been allowed to simulcast dog and horse racing since the state outlawed live greyhound racing several years ago. Moreover, Suffolk Downs purchased the Wonderland Park dog track after it went out of business and has been simulcasting greyhound racing at the Thoroughbred track under Wonderland's license for the past three years.
Suffolk's current Thoroughbred simulcasting rights expire on Dec. 31 and Tuttle said the date for the track to be shuttered has been extended from Dec. 20 to the last day of the year.
If there is no live racing at Suffolk Downs in 2015, the owners of the Brockton Fairgrounds would welcome back the Thoroughbred horsemen. They have not hosted a meet since 2001 but hold two agricultural licenses and have submitted applications with the MGC for two fair meets of 15 days each in 2015.