By Lynne Snierson
The future of live Thoroughbred racing in New England became cloudier June 24 after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a referendum to repeal the state's casino law may appear on the November ballot.
The ruling comes at a time when public support for the expansion of gambling in the state seems to be on the decline. A poll earlier this month conducted by Suffolk University revealed that only 37% of voters approve of allowing casinos.
In 2011, the state Legislature authorized three destination resort casinos for separate regions of the state and one stand-alone slots parlor. Suffolk Downs
, the last surviving of 17 Thoroughbred tracks in the region, has teamed with Mohegan Sun to develop a $1.3 billion resort casino on the grounds of the 79-year-old property.
Mohegan Sun's proposal is competing with a rival plan from casino mogul Steve Wynn, who would locate his $1.6 million project two miles from the racetrack.
Richard Fields, Suffolk's principal owner, has maintained repeatedly that unless Mohegan Sun wins the license, economics dictate there will be no more live racing at Suffolk Downs.
Mohegan Sun issued a statement, which read: "We believe we have the best plan to bring thousands of jobs, world class entertainment, local economic development, and increased tourism to the region and that is our focus right now. We will also join the chorus of others making the case to voters on why this law is good for workers, good for the economy, and good for the commonwealth."
The campaign both for and against repeal is expected to be a hot button issue for the remainder of the summer and through the fall election.
Penn National Gaming Inc. served notice after the High Court's ruling that the company will be a major player in the campaign to defend the law.
In February, Penn National Gaming won the competitive bidding process to build the sole slots facility at Plainridge Race Course, which was a boon to the state's struggling harness industry. Penn National Gaming purchased the track for $42 million, paid the $25 million nonrefundable license fee, and has already begun construction on what will be Plainridge Park Casino.
"We remain confident that Massachusetts voters will want to protect the thousands of new jobs and the hundreds of millions in annual tax revenues that our new industry will generate, in addition to recapturing over $1 billion being wagered by Mass. residents in neighboring states each year," said Eric Schippers, a senior vice president for Penn National Gaming, in a statement.
"Our fight to protect jobs and preserve this economic development opportunity for Massachusetts begins today. "Construction on the Plainridge Park Casino remains full steam ahead, and we continue to anticipate a June 2015 opening."
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission's timetable called for awarding the Boston area casino license in late August or early September.
Commission chairman Stephen Crosby said in a statement: "The Massachusetts Gaming Commission respects the decision of the Supreme Judicial Court to allow the citizens of the commonwealth to vote on the repeal of expanded gaming in November.
"As the commission has demonstrated in the past, we have the flexibility to achieve progress in the licensing and regulatory process even in an atmosphere of uncertainty and we will continue to do so. Although the commission has not taken a position on the repeal; we are committed to implementing the law as it currently exists in a manner that is participatory, transparent and fair."
The 2014 meet at Suffolk Downs is scheduled to run through September 29 with live racing three days per week.