By Lynne Snierson
After six weeks of intense negotiations on a new contract, the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and Suffolk Downs finally sealed a two-year agreement late in the day March 4. The horsemen said that they promptly restored the simulcast signal from the New York Racing Association.
“We have a deal, and it is for 2011 and 2012. We just finished it and I am now on my way to Suffolk Downs to deliver the contract,” said NEHBPA general counsel Frank Frisoli when reached at 6 p.m. “The NYRA signal is back on and we have sent a signed notice to the national HBPA that we have reached a deal. We would be delighted if all of the signals (that were pulled by horsemen in Florida, Ohio, Oregon, Maryland, and Oklahoma in solidarity) will be back on as early as tomorrow.”
Suffolk and the NEHBPA agreed to race 80 days provided that the state statute can be changed from the current minimum of 100 days. The track will pay $8.25 million in purses, for an average of $103,125 in overnights, and the simulcasting revenue is to be shared 50-50. While the contract calls for an 80-day meet with legislative approval, it is possible there may be more live racing.
“If the track’s revenue is at 95% of projections or better, then there will be an additional five days added at the same purse rate,” said Frisoli. “I expect that there will be a meet of 85 days.”
The final sticking point that threatened to kill the deal March 3 was Suffolk’s request the NEHBPA send written letters to the Speaker of the House and the Senate President in Massachusetts which would publicly state that the horsemen would not stand in opposition to Suffolk’s legislative agenda to get the current mandatory number of 100 live racing days reduced. The East Boston, Mass. track is also trying to get favorable legislation to expand gambling passed in this year’s session.
“Under the terms of this contract, we did not agree to give the speaker and the president those letters,” Frisoli said. “We what are going to do instead is send a confirmatory letter to Suffolk Downs (that we will not oppose them in their legislative efforts).”
Suffolk Downs Chief Executive Officer Chip Tuttle said, “As we strive to offer a competitive racing program that is attractive to fans and horsemen, we are gratified the NEHBPA has agreed that fewer days for higher purses is preferable to the alternative. Having reached an agreement, we look forward to the 2011 racing season and to working together on expanded gaming legislation in Massachusetts that will create jobs, generate revenue for the state, benefit the local economy, and ensure a strong foundation for racing here in the future."
Frisoli explained that while the horsemen are pleased with the contract because for the first time they will receive what he termed as an equitable share of the revenue, coming to terms in an extremely contentious dispute was never easy.
“We made a concession that nobody on our board wanted to make and that was to race less than 100 days," he said. “But we looked at this and agreed to the 80 days because it was that or not have a meet. This deal is in the best interest of our membership, the Massachusetts breeders, the farm industry, and all of the others involved. It is a two-year deal and now we hopefully are in a position to move forward with Suffolk Downs without any acrimony.”
While the battle was waged for six weeks and the simulcast signals were pulled, Suffolk experienced a dramatic decline in business that forced the track to cut back both hours of operation and staffing.
“There were employees who were out of work and the bettors were inconvenienced,” said the horsemen’s attorney. “That was one of the factors we considered in making this deal. It was not fair that those people got caught in the middle of our dispute, and we tried to make accommodations because of that.”
Suffolk officials expect the live racing season to begin in May and the official schedule will be announced in the coming weeks. Condition books and stall applications will be distributed as soon as possible. As part of the deal, the backside will remain open from late April until mid November.
The track also announced that the signal from Gulfstream will be up and running for the races on March 5.