By Lynne Snierson
As Suffolk Downs prepares to open its 2014 meet May 3, a heavy cloud of uncertainty about the future of live racing hangs over the sole surviving Thoroughbred racetrack in New England.
Suffolk Downs management has been candid that unless its gaming partner, Mohegan Sun, triumphs over rival Wynn Resorts for the sole license for the destination resort casino designated for the Greater Boston area, economics dictate this meet likely will be the last at the 79-year-old track.
"The start of the live race meet here always brings with it a sense of optimism and renewal, although this year that is tempered with concern for our workforce and the future here," Suffolk Downs chief operating office Chip Tuttle said. "Our plan is to invest in racing, create a better experience for customers and horsemen, bring back special events, and return racing here to the major-league stature this market deserves."
The track's operating losses ranged from $11.8 million to $26.4 million over a five-year period. On-track pari-mutuel handle nosedived from $27.6 million in 2000 to $6.5 million in 2012, according to data filed with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which regulates racing in the state.
"I feel so bad for Suffolk management, with all that they have done, all of the groundwork they laid (to get the casino license). (Principal owner) Richard Fields has kept the place open for all of these years while losing money," said John Assimakopolous, one of the track's leading trainers who has been in the business since the mid-1970s with his father, owner/trainer Charles Assimakopolous.
The MGC's timetable to award the license, originally planned for this past February, has been pushed back several times. It is now is classified by the agency as "undetermined" due to issues over whether Boston should qualify as a host community, revised traffic and engineering studies, and other matters, including a potential statewide referendum to repeal the law authorizing expanded gaming on the November ballot.
Meanwhile, horsemen are having a hard time remaining upbeat as they return from their winter racing locales and area farms. With the meet opening in 10 days, there are only about 200 horses on the grounds, and the racing office is scrambling to attract another 400 to 500 that are in condition to run in the coming weeks in order to fill the cards.
"Home is home. I can't wait to come back," said Assimakopolous, who stabled in Maryland over the winter and will ship in five of his own horses along with a string of about a dozen he'll handle for New York-based trainer David Jacobson. "But the uncertainty of it all is weighing on everybody. As positive of a person as I am, it's even starting to weigh on me. I want to know what's coming and we have to keep waiting because of delays after delays.
"It's tough. I think everybody is happy to be coming home, but for how long that's going to be, we don't really know."
The mood will brighten considerably if Mohegan Sun's proposal to develop a $1.3 billion casino on the Revere side of Suffolk Downs is chosen over Steve Wynn's plan to build a $1.6 billion casino in Everett, which is located only about two miles from the stable area.
Suffolk Downs would then lease the land on the Revere side of the property to Mohegan Sun and use part of the proceeds to continue live racing for a minimum of 15 years and supplement purses. Last fall Fields and Tuttle unveiled a $40 million racing improvement plan, contingent on Mohegan Sun developing the casino.
Reviving the stakes schedule and restoring the Massachusetts Handicap, which for decades was the track's signature graded stakes, are part of the discussion.
"I've got some clients around the Boston area who would get into the business in a minute if something positive happens," Assimakopolous said. "But it's hard to get anybody to spend money for a horse with this uncertainty. That's hurting a lot of trainers and it's really hurting the racing business."
The meet, which has opened in early June in the last few years, begins one month sooner this year to get in as many cards as possible before the MGC renders its decision. Track management and the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association have an agreement that live racing will be conducted through at least Sept. 1.
After opening day, racing will be conducted on Wednesday and Saturday the first week, then Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday the following week. Beginning May 19, four-day race weeks (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday) will be scheduled until the conclusion of the meet.