So often, the Massachusetts Handicap has featured the “big horse," drawing Triple Crown winners War Admiral, Whirlaway, and Assault, plus the likes of racing legends Seabiscuit, Fort Marcy, John Henry, Cigar, and Skip Away.
This year will be no exception, as owner Tracy Farmer and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito bring Commentator to the starting gate at Suffolk Downs. A 7-year-old son of Distorted Humor , Commentator has won 12 of 19 career races, including the prestigious Whitney Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga in 2005 and 2008, while amassing career earnings of $1,541,936.
Then, why should this year’s incarnation of the MassCap be any different than the other 65 events contested beneath the deafening roar of overhead planes from nearby Logan Airport?
The answer is, because, like most mid-level tracks in the United States, Suffolk Downs, while exquisitely run and maintained, is fighting for its existence, and the MassCap is perhaps the most visual way its management team, led by majority owner Richard Fields, chairman William J. Mulrow, and chief operating officer Chip Tuttle, can show the state legislature that the combined Suffolk-Wonderland Greyhound Park team is a viable entity for an expanded entertainment and gaming facility in Massachusetts.
"The MassCap is definitely important," Tuttle said at the post-position draw luncheon Sept. 17 in the Topsider Room at Suffolk. "Our entire meet builds toward it locally and nationally, as well as to show that Suffolk is a player and entity within the racing industry."
Without some form of alternative revenue to augment purses, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Suffolk to compete with other Eastern racetracks on a daily basis despite the infusion of capital by Fields in March of 2007 to increase marketing and make much-needed repairs to the backstretch and physical plant.
"From Maine to Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Maryland are the only racing states without some form of purse enhancement from gaming," said Tuttle, who knows the situation all too well. He began as a sports reporter for the Salem, Mass., Evening News in 1991, then was hired as director of marketing and communications at Suffolk from 1993-97. He returned in August of 2007.
"With slots in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Park is raising purses again," Tuttle said. "There are several New England horsemen at Philadelphia Park who told me they would love to come back home and help Suffolk out, but they can't afford to go from daily purses of $300,000 to a situation where purses top out at $110,000. It's becoming increasingly difficult as time goes on."
That's one reason why MassCap Day can show the state legislature that Suffolk is just as capable of putting its best foot forward as any big track in the country, as it has in the recent past with Cigar, Skip Away, and Brass Hat last year before a crowd of 19,191, the largest paying crowd since 22,169 greeted Cigar in 1996. Boston-area fans are discerning and will come out for quality racing.
“If you go back to Cigar, both owner Allen Paulson and trainer Bill Mott said that they have never gone to anywhere in the world where more people came up to them and just thanked them for coming," Tuttle said. "Nick Zito and Tracy Farmer will find out the same thing with Commentator on Saturday. Conversely, when daily purses are only $110,000, fans tend to become simulcast bettors despite our best efforts."
With a tour de force Sept. 20, the Suffolk management team is hoping the state's leaders will finally realize that the Massachusetts racing industry--Suffolk in particular--is an entity they can't afford to lose.