By Lynne Snierson
After a protracted period of dark and dreary skies in New England, the clouds lifted and the sun shone on Suffolk Downs for the first race of the 2010 live racing season. The weather May 21 seemed to be a metaphor for the relationship between track management and the horsemen as both sides are now working in tandem and holding on to hope that this will be the year Massachusetts finally approves the expansion of gambling.
“The weather was a nice turn for us and it’s really good to see horses back on the track,” said chief executive officer Chip Tuttle, who was encouraged by the crowd of 11,372 that wagered $233,883 on-track on the nine-race card.
During last winter’s long and bitter contract negotiations with the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the return of live racing at times seemed in doubt as the factions battled over the amount of purses to be paid, the split of simulcasting revenue, and the number of days in the meet. The last point was the most contentious, and they eventually agreed upon 80 days with the caveat that the state statute requiring 100 days of live racing must be revised.
“Any time you have negotiations like that, it’s only natural to have hurt feelings. We have to put it in the past, focus on the positive, and work together for the common good,” said Tuttle. “I am making it a point today to thank the horsemen I see and tell them that we’re happy they’re here.”
Several longtime New England horsemen said on opening day that while they are happy to be back, they would prefer to race 100 days rather than the 80 spread over a three-day week between now and November 5th. Nonetheless, they understand the harsh realities of the current economic climate.
“It’s unfortunate, but there are two positions to take on it. This is a business, and Mr. Fields (the principal in the track’s ownership group) is faced with making very tough business decisions,” said Marcus Vitale, one of Suffolk’s leading trainers, who returned with 17 horses in his barn. “I understand the horsemen’s position, too. But you’ve got to meet somewhere in the middle. I’d rather race 100 days, but you’ve got to make the best of it. The bottom line is that we have to work together or there won’t be anything for anyone.”
Tuttle said that Suffolk management, which has entered into a strategic alliance with Caesars Entertainment to develop a destination resort casino on the grounds should the legislature authorize expanded gambling, remains positive now that live racing has returned. The focus is on hosting the best meet possible while discussions continue with legislators.
Despite the uncertain future, Suffolk is offering purses that are 30% higher than 2010 for an average daily distribution of $103,125. The track was able to attract several new outfits from Florida and the Mid-Atlantic region. Veteran jockey Joe Rocco has moved his tack here for the meet.
“I’ve been riding for a long time and I want the chance to win every day,” Rocco said before his first trip over the track in the featured $16, 700 maiden special weight event for fillies and mares. “I broke my elbow and punctured my lung last year at Delaware, and this will be my first mount in six months. I’m 51, not too far from 4,000 wins, and not ready to retire. I think I can ride four or five a day here.”
Suffolk will race three days per week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays with post time of 12:45. Admission and parking will be free all season. The wagering menu now includes 10-cent superfectas on every race and a 50-cent Pick 3 and Pick 4.