By Lynne Snierson
The owners of the Brockton Fairgrounds have stepped up to offer the Thoroughbred horsemen of Massachusetts a home after Suffolk Downs came up short in its casino quest with gaming partner Mohegan Sun, and consequently, is being forced to shutter its doors.
"We reached out to the (New England) HBPA yesterday (Sept. 17)," said Christopher Carney, whose family owns the fairgrounds and Raynham Park, which hosted live greyhound racing until it was outlawed in Massachusetts several years ago. "They are in the middle of elections and can't enter into discussions until after the results are final. We reached out to them because we have aspirations.
"We are going to file a racing dates application on October 1 for one day for both Middleboro Agricultural (fair) and Brockton Agricultural," continued Carney, who added they will also apply for a 60-day meet in 2015. "We've got our applications on our desk and we're filling them out now."
In the wake of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission's Sept. 16 decision in favor of the Wynn Resorts proposal to develop a $1.6 billion casino just two miles from Suffolk's stable gate, Suffolk COO Chip Tuttle was tasked with notifying employees, horsemen, and other industry stakeholders that when the current meet ends Sept. 29, it will mark the end of live racing for good. In December, the 79-year-old track will stop simulcasting and close.
NEHBPA officials were unavailable for comment, but Carney added that his family has no interest in continuing to have the horsemen race at Suffolk Downs through a lease agreement or purchase. He considered the 150+ acre track to be too old and too big, with its expensive labor and other overhead costs, to make that economically feasible.
While Suffolk has a one-mile oval and a seven-furlong turf course and chute, the racing strip at the fairgrounds is six furlongs. Nonetheless, Carney sees that as a benefit rather than a detriment because it would discourage out-of-state horsemen from competing with the locals.
"We have a viable plan because we already own the location," said Carney, who added that he and his 86-year-old father, George, spent $4 million on improvements to the barns and infrastructure in 2000 when Thoroughbreds last raced on the old Massachusetts Fair circuit. "Everything is intact. It might not be big, glitzy, and glamorous, but it worked for us in 2000."
The Carneys and partner Greenwood Racing, the owner of Parx Racing, went after the single slots parlor license in Massachusetts and were in competition against the Cordish Cos. and Penn National Gaming Inc. In February the MGC awarded the license to PNGI, which then executed a purchase and sales agreement on the state's only harness racing track and construction is underway on the new $225 million Plainridge Park Casino.
As part of their application, the Carney family offered to host live Standardbred racing at the fairgrounds in the event that PNGI did not secure the license. The welcome mat is now out for the Thoroughbred horsemen.
"We like it (Thoroughbred racing), we love it, and we've been in it. We're not in it for a casino or slots parlor. We know that ship has sailed for us. We want to make this work. We have an operation in place from before and we'll do it again," Carney said.
The Massachusetts 2011 expanded gambling bill had built-in protections for the racing industry through the establishment of the Race Horse Development Fund to be supplied by percentages of casino and slots parlor license fees and future profits. The MGC ruled the RHDF will be split 75%-25%, Thoroughbred-Standardbred, with 80% going to purses, 16% designated for breeders, and 4% to backstretch welfare. If there is no Thoroughbred track operating in the state, the horsemen's share, which could reach more than $100 million over time, would be held in escrow for three fiscal years.
With the fund growing as the slots parlor and three destination resort casinos come on line, Carney said there would be purse money to potentially expand upon the 60 live dates in the future.
Construction on Plainridge Park Casino is underway on Plainridge Park Casino and PNGI VP of Racing Christopher McErlean said that the company has no plans to include a one-mile dirt track and turf course to include Thoroughbred racing along with harness racing, or to consider another facility elsewhere in the state.
"We haven't explored any other options other than moving full steam ahead on Plainridge," he said. "It's something we have not looked at, but in the future, who knows?"
Across the border in Southern New Hampshire, Rockingham Park's one-mile oval and turf course remain unused. The final Thoroughbred meet there was in 2002.
Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas holds the option to purchase Rockingham in the event an expanded gaming bill passes the legislature and it then wins the competitive bidding process for a casino license.
A spokesman declined to comment, but Millennium co-owner and co-CEO William Wortman told the Blood-Horse in 2013 that the return of live Thoroughbred racing to Rockingham would depend upon the future gaming and racing marketplace conditions, including the status of Suffolk Downs.
No monies in the Massachusetts Horse Race Development Fund may be transferred for use out of state.