By Lynne Snierson
The management of Suffolk Downs sent a formal letter to the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association February 15 asking the horsemen to restore simulcasting signals and also reiterated its intention to conduct a live meet in 2011. The two sides are battling over a new contract and the major obstacles are the number of racing days, the purse structure, and the split over the simulcasting revenue.
During the acrimonious negotiations, which have dragged on for more than three weeks, the NEHBPA withdrew its consent for races from the New York Racing Association to be simulcast at the East Boston, Mass., track and in turn horsemen in Ohio, Florida, Oregon, and Maryland pulled their signals. As a result, Suffolk has been forced to cut its hours of operation and reduce staffing levels.
“First, we have been consistent about our intention to run a live meet in 2011 and still hope to do so,” Suffolk chief executive officer Chip Tuttle wrote in the letter addressed to NEHBPA president Al Balestra. “The actions of the NEHBPA and other HBPA chapters around the country are making it much more difficult to achieve that goal. We have asked repeatedly in our dialogue over the last few weeks for you to restore the NYRA signal and to encourage other HBPA chapters to give their consent to send their simulcast signal to Suffolk Downs. Your actions continue to deprive Suffolk Downs of the ability to generate revenue during this crucial time of the year and to generate purse money that you maintain is so vital to your members. The NEHBPA’s actions also have caused economic and emotional harm to many of our dedicated employees whose work schedules have been reduced due to lack of available simulcast product.”
Tuttle went on to write that the horsemen in New England and around the country have shown a “complete lack of respect” to the loyal customers who raise purse revenue by betting at Suffolk. He termed this disregard as “most troubling” and “most stunning.”
Concerning the number of live racing days in 2011, the horsemen have taken the position that a minimum of 100 is necessary in order for them to be able to pay their bills and properly care for their horses, while the track stated that economics dictate it conduct a meet of no less than 67 days with the potential to extend the meet to 76 days as long as expanded gaming legislation passes this year. The current state statute requires the minimum of 100 days of live Thoroughbred racing, and the track has requested that the horsemen work together with management to change the law. At this stage in the negotiations, the NEHBPA has not agreed to do so.
“All of the national trends of the last decade-- wagering declines, industry economic issues, consolidation and the continuing decline in the foal crop-- point to facilities like ours racing fewer days with higher purses and better quality of racing,” wrote Tuttle, who then implored the NEHBPA to cooperate with the track to secure favorable legislation to reduce the number of days required. “We ask that you please restore the NYRA signal and encourage other HBPA chapters to restore their signals as a show of good faith and to make it possible for us to race in 2011.”
Frank Frisoli, the attorney for the NEHBPA, said that he had received the letter Feb. 15 and sent a reply to Tuttle the same afternoon. He did not discuss the details of the horsemen’s response but did say, “This appears to be heating up. I don’t know if we’re headed to court or to a resolution.”
Meanwhile, the 82-year-old owner of the Brockton, Mass., Fairgrounds and a former greyhound track now open only for simulcasting in Massachusetts has jumped into the fray.
“This might be an opportunity to get back into the ballgame,” George Carney told the Brockton Enterprise. “I’m optimistic.”
Carney last raced Thoroughbreds at the Brockton Fair in 2001 after investing $3 million to upgrade the facility and he told the newspaper that he is prepared to pour in another $1 million to hold a live meet in 2011. Carney indicated that his meet could encompass the entire 100 days the horsemen want or any days beyond the 67 Suffolk stated it would like to race. A lobbyist for the NEHPBA confirmed that his group has held conversations with Carney and is considering the offer.
“I read with interest the news accounts of the NEHBPA’s discussions with the owners of the simulcast facility at Raynham-Taunton, which is still receiving all the simulcast signals that the HBPA chapters around the country have withdrawn from Suffolk Downs, to re-open the Brockton Fair to accommodate Thoroughbred racing,” Tuttle went on to write in the letter. “While we would be concerned about the inequity in purses paid here and the purses paid at a fair meet, as well as the safety of your members and their horses in that environment, we remain open to any discussions that would give your members additional opportunities to race locally, especially if such opportunities could offset our current schedule and reduce the duration of keeping our barn area and training facilities open.”