By Lynne Snierson
The New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association rejected the latest proposal from Suffolk Downs on the night of Feb. 24, and it is likely the dispute over a contract for the 2011 season will not be resolved by the Feb. 25 deadline the track had imposed.
According to a highly placed source close to the negotiations, the 10 voting members on the NEHBPA board of directors voted 5-4, with one abstention, against accepting the offer from the East Boston, Mass., track to pay $8.25 million in purses over a race meet of 75 to 80 days. Suffolk reportedly was also willing to pay a greater percentage of simulcast revenue than the 50-50 split the horsemen have requested throughout the negotiations, which have dragged on for five weeks. The horsemen have steadfastly said they need to race no fewer than 100 days.
Suffolk chief executive officer Chip Tuttle was out of the state and unavailable for comment. When reached by phone late Feb. 24, NEHBPA general counsel Frank Frisoli said: “There are issues that are still to be negotiated. We are close to agreement. On our second vote, we advanced the proposal, and Suffolk may accept it.
"The issues have always been money and the number of days of racing. The money end is resolved. But the days end is not.”
Reportedly, horsemen refused to accept fewer than the 100 days of live racing currently required by state statute in order for the track to be able to simulcast. The source said Suffolk’s offer is contingent upon passage of legislation to reduce the minimum of days mandated, and it also requires the NEHBPA not to oppose the track’s request to the Massachusetts State Racing Commission for the reduction in dates.
“We will let Suffolk petition the legislature to reduce the number of days of racing,” Frisoli said. “The one thing we won’t do is support their petition to race fewer than 100 days. If the legislature agrees to reduce the number of days, then we’ll race whatever days the state requires.”
In its offer, Suffolk reportedly agreed to allow the horsemen to decide upon the exact number of live racing days between 75 and 80. If they were to race 80 days, purses would be an average of $103,125 but if they settled on five fewer days and raced 75, the daily distribution would increase to $110,000.
Throughout the dispute, the NEHBPA has always said its members cannot race for less than $100,000 per day if they are to be able to pay their bills and properly care for their horses.
Suffolk’s offer includes the possibility of racing an additional five days beyond the 75 to 80 proposed if benchmarks in handle are met. Should business improve beyond projections, the track would be willing to reopen negotiations during the meet.
On Feb. 24 Frisoli said that Suffolk had “set hard deadlines” of Feb. 25 for a response to its latest counterproposal. Now negotiations will continue on deadline day.
On Feb. 21 Suffolk threatened to shut down in March if the NEHBPA and other chapters across the country do not restore simulcast signals by Feb. 27. The horsemen, who raced without a contract in 2010 and saw purses cut during the summer meet after legislation to expand gambling failed in Massachusetts, withdrew their consent for races from the New York Racing Association to be simulcast at Suffolk On Jan. 28.
Horsemen in Ohio, Florida, Oregon, and Maryland subsequently withdrew their signals in a show of solidarity at the beginning of February.
According to figures released by the track Feb. 24, Suffolk bucked national trends and experienced a 3.8% increase in simulcast wagering in the month of January 2011 as opposed to January of 2010. The numbers for February told a different story, with Suffolk experiencing a 44.9% drop in simulcast handle. From Feb. 1-23 in 2010, the track took in $4,431,110 in simulcast revenue but for a similar period in 2011, only $2, 442,451 was bet on races from other tracks.
In early February Suffolk cut back its hours of operation and reduced staffing levels due to the steep decline in revenue