Massachusetts Approves Added Dates in 2016
Photo: Chip Bott
Suffolk Downs

Live Thoroughbred racing can return to Brockton Fairgrounds for the first time since 2001 and Suffolk Downs will double the days of its live meet in 2016. 

Those were the decisions handed down by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission at a Nov. 12 hearing in Boston, when commissioners unanimously approved each of the 2016 dates' applications under consideration. 

Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, which recently concluded its three-day meet, was granted a license for six days of racing in 2016 at Suffolk, and the two separate agricultural fair license holders will be allowed to race a maximum of 15 days each for a combined 30-day meet at the fairgrounds. 

"We're excited," said Chris Carney, whose family owns the Brockton Fairgrounds, and holds both the Brockton Agricultural Society and the Middleborough Agricultural Society licenses. "We're really looking forward to it, because this time we don't have to reach into our own pockets to pay the purses."

The state's nascent Race Horse Development Fund, established as part of the 2011 expanded gambling legislation to protect the Thoroughbred and Standardbred industries in the face of new casino competition, fuels purses. The RHDF is supplied by a percentage of the license fees and revenue from the state's one operational slots facility and three future casinos. The fund is split 75% to the Thoroughbreds and 25% to the Standardbreds, with 80% mandated for purses, 16% for the breeders, and 4% for backstretch welfare.

The RHDF supplied about $1.5 million for purses paid at Suffolk Downs in 2015. When live racing was last held at the Brockton Fairgrounds, the horsemen raced for an average daily purse distribution of $25,000. The Carney family anticipates 2016 purses will average $100,000 per day at the start.

"Because of the fund, we'll have enough money to take care of the purses and the rest of it will go to running the racetrack and upgrading the racetrack," Carney said.

That is a key factor, as the MGC imposed conditions upon each licensee that must be met prior to the start of the respective 2016 meets.

The conditions for Suffolk, already an accredited NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance member, include approval of its racing strip by an independent safety expert; a limitation on number of steeplechase races carded to reduce the amount of purses paid to out-of-state steeplechase horsemen; the reporting of purses paid to and the percentage of local horsemen benefiting from the RHDF after each weekend of racing; the coordination with the Carney family on race dates to avoid conflict; and the submission in writing of the amount of RHDF funds requested and an accounting of how the money will be spent.

The conditions for the Brockton Fairgrounds, which no longer has a safety rail installed on its five-eighths of a mile track, are similar.

The Carneys must file a detailed and completed application at least 30 days prior to the start of live racing; they must make a good faith effort to receive accreditation by the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance division for fair tracks; they must race on different days than Suffolk; they must also report on the purses paid to and the percentage of local horsemen benefiting from the RHDF after the first 15 days of racing, and they must also file a written request for RHDF funding and an accounting of how the money will be spent.

"Those conditions are all very reasonable," Chris Carney said. "We don't have to submit a request for purses until 30 days prior to opening, so if there is oodles of money in that fund, we plan to open offering purses of even a little bit more than the $100,000 per day. Even with $100,000, it's a great start. This is exciting."

Bill Lagorio, the president of the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which has splintered from the New England Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association, advocated strongly for the reintroduction of racing at the Brockton Fairgrounds and also for a minimum of 50 days of live racing at Suffolk, which is a one-mile oval and has a seven-furlong turf course with a chute.

"Racing at Brockton with 30 days is a start. We'll take it. I would have preferred they (the MGC) had left the simulcasting (rights of Suffolk Downs) up for grabs to attract a bigger entity to come in (and operate the track under a lease agreement)," he said.

Lagorio added that among the MTHA's objections to racing only six days at Suffolk is that the short meet limits opportunity for local owners and trainers. In 2015, Suffolk paid purses of close to $500,000 per day and current plans call for the same average daily distribution.

"The majority of people who have Mass-breds can't get them off the farm to train or get a gate card and that makes things very difficult for them. Brockton can provide a place for training as well as racing. This is certainly a step in the right direction for a lot of horsemen who are really hurting and are in a great deal of trouble," Lagorio said. "If we can run for $100,000 or even plus that at the fairs, that's certainly a better distribution of the money."

Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer of Suffolk, said track ownership has been consistently candid about its plans to halt all live racing at the 80-year-old track after 2016 as it moves forward with plans to develop the valuable property for real estate. The six day meet, which will be held July 9-10, the first weekend in August, and on Labor Day weekend, is a stop-gap measure until horsemen can find a long-term solution.

The NEHBA is in the process of forming a non-profit corporation that would develop, own and operate an equine park and racetrack and is now seeking legislative approval

NEHBPA president Anthony Spadea said, "The gaming commission's decision today allows us to move forward with our plans to race in 2016 so that we can keep in mind the long-term goal of building a permanent facility to guarantee the longevity of Thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts. The only way that we know how to do that is to control our own destiny by being able to build our own facility that is run by horsemen for the benefit of horsemen. This what we have believed from Day One."

In the meantime, Suffolk Downs, which saw on-track crowds of almost 30,000 in total and full fields for the 2015 three-day meet that included nine $75,000 stakes for state-breds, is anticipating a successful six-day meet next year. 

"We appreciate the commission's vote of confidence and we are looking forward to our meet in 2016 and building on what we accomplished this year with the limited schedule, but with higher quality racing. We're glad we are able to give the horsemen and the Massachusetts breeders a venue while they continue to work out their longer term plans," Tuttle said.

In related news, the MGC voted 5-0 to approve the application of the state's only harness racing track, Penn National Gaming Inc.'s Plainridge Park Casino, for 115 days of live racing. State law requires a pari-mutuel facility also licensed as a gaming establishment to hold a minimum of 115 days of live racing in its second year of operation. The approval is conditional based upon the satisfactory results of a safety evaluation of the racing strip to be completed prior to the start of the 2016 meet.

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