By Lynne Snierson
The Massachusetts horsemen and breeders now live to fight another day after the referendum to repeal the bill authorizing three resort casinos and one slots parlor in the state was resoundingly rejected at the polls on election night.
Question 3 on the statewide ballot failed 60.1% (1,252,179 votes) to 39.9% (832,025) Nov. 4. Now officials of the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association may move forward with plans to structure a deal with the owners of Suffolk Downs that could allow live racing to return in 2015.
In the wake of Suffolk's gaming partner, Mohegan Sun, failing to win the single license for the Boston area casino Sept. 16, when the Massachusetts Gaming Commission instead favored Wynn Resorts, track owners announced it was no longer economically possible to host another meet. Oct. 4 was the final day of live racing and plans call for the building to be shuttered for simulcasting in December.
The referendum's defeat was a key victory for the horsemen as the casino bill contains built-in protections for the industry through the establishment of the Race Horse Development Fund, which will be supplied by percentages of the license fees and future revenue generated by the slots parlor and casinos. The fund will be spilt 75%-25%, Thoroughbred to Standardbred, and will total tens of millions of dollars once the gaming facilities come on line.
Of the horsemen's share, 80% goes to purses, 16% is dedicated to breeders, and 4% is set aside for backstretch welfare.
NEHBPA officials, who have brought on industry expert Lou Raffetto as a consultant, are working diligently to devise a way to keep Suffolk open. Chip Tuttle, the COO of the track, said that the owners are keeping their minds and ears open. While both sides remain hopeful, the return of live racing is a longshot at this stage.
The NEHBPA filed a "placeholder" 2015 dates application with the MGC Oct. 1, as did George Carney and his family, who hope to bring live Thoroughbred racing back to their Brockton Fairgrounds. On Nov. 6, the MGC will vote to approve or deny those applications.
If approved, the applicant must return to the commissioners with completed and detailed applications by Nov. 15. An official with the MGC said that the $125,000 bond, which must accompany each dates application, would be due 30 days after the racing license is issued.
In related news, the Republican red tide that swept across the country on election night will return control of the 400-member New Hampshire House of Representatives to that party. As of 2 p.m., Associated Press reported that Republicans picked up 50 seats for a 230-158 majority, with almost all of the undeclared races leaning Republican.
Although pro-casino Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, was re-elected over her anti-casino opponent and the Republican-controlled Senate has passed expanded gambling bills in recent years, the House has killed every piece of casino legislation brought to the floor in modern times. The solid Republican majority in the House makes passage of a casino bill in 2015 even more unlikely.
Rockingham Park, which last hosted a Thoroughbred meet in 2002, is seen as the front-runner for a casino if the bill passes. Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas holds the option to purchase the property in the event New Hampshire authorizes casino gambling and it then wins the competition for the license. Millennium officials have stated that the return of live Thoroughbred racing remains part of the plans for the revitalization of the track.
Rockingham president and general manager Ed Callahan said, "We will continue to work on a casino bill which would allow Rockingham to provide a great entertainment complex with a casino, hotel, and Thoroughbred racing."