By Lynne Snierson
Horsemen and employees of Suffolk Downs took advantage of their last opportunity to stand up for the survival of the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry in New England Aug. 11 when the Massachusetts Gaming Commission held its final public input hearing on Mohegan Sun's proposal to develop a $1.3 billion casino project on racetrack grounds.
"Preserving the racing industry here is very important to all of us. The alternative is very scary," said Dyn Panell, one of many members of the local riding colony who showed up at Revere High School dressed in their silks and boots. "It's not easy to just pick up and move somewhere else. I own a house here and have kids in school. It's hard to pack your tack and try to break into the jocks' room somewhere else and start all over."
Mohegan Sun/Suffolk Downs is in competition with Wynn Resorts, which wants to develop a $1.6 billion casino just two miles from the track's stable gate in Everett, Mass., for the sole Boston area destination casino license.
The owners of Suffolk Downs in East Boston have been candid in stating that if Mohegan Sun does not prevail, this live racing season will be the last at the 79-year-old track, which is the last of 17 Thoroughbred tracks in New England. But at the same time, they recently signed a surrounding community agreement with the City of Boston that legally requires the track to offer live racing for a minimum of the next 15 years if Mohegan Sun wins the license and develops the casino on 40 acres of leased land on the portion of the track within Revere's city limits.
Karen Benson and her daughter Paige own and operate Indian Rock Farm, a breeding, training and lay-up facility located 10 minutes from the track.
"This decision is also about preserving the agricultural industry. It's quite a big deal to us," said Karen Benson, who sits on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association. "My farm is a family farm that has been here for 14 years. I have six mares and in the last two years have only had one foal each year because of the uncertainty hanging over us all. This year we didn't have any foals. We also have seven retired racehorses from Suffolk Downs who are retraining for second careers. If Mohegan Sun doesn't get the license it will put us out of the Thoroughbred business."
A final public input hearing on the competing proposal by Wynn Resorts is scheduled for Aug. 12.
Under the state gaming statute, the gaming commission must take action in 39-90 days after the public hearings conclude. The commissioners said they will begin deliberations during the week of Sept. 8 and expect to announce their choice for the license Sept. 12.
Louis Ciarlone, the business agent for IBEW Local 103, the union representing the vast majority of the unionized work force at the track, implored the commissioners to select the proposal of Mohegan Sun/Suffolk Downs.
"Some of the most decent, hard-working and caring people you would ever want to meet plead with you to save their jobs and the industry they love when you make your final decision," he said.
No matter which proposal is chosen, it must withstand a statewide referendum to repeal the law authorizing expanded gambling that will appear on the November ballot. Meanwhile, members of the racing industry and pro-casino forces are working diligently to defeat the repeal effort.