by Lynne Snierson
Suffolk Downs and New England Thoroughbred horsemen and breeders will live to fight another day after voters in Revere, Mass., overwhelmingly backed the track and gaming partner Mohegan Sun in their plan to develop a world-class destination resort casino on the grounds of the 79-year-old facility.
The 63%-37% vote in favor of becoming the host community for the casino giant and Suffolk Downs, which straddles the cities of Revere and East Boston, allows their proposal for a $1.3 billion project to move forward in the process to license a single casino in the Boston area.
The five-member Massachusetts Gaming Commission is expected to make the final determination by the end of June. The other applicant is Wynn Resorts, which has proposed a $1.6 billion casino project in Everett on the site of a closed chemical plant located only two miles from the racetrack.
The Feb. 25 referendum was needed after mixed results in ballot initiatives Nov. 5. Voters in East Boston handily defeated a plan to build the casino partially on its side of track property while Revere residents approved it by the margin of 61%-39%. On the same day, voters in Palmer turned down Mohegan Sun's plan to site a casino in the western part of the state.
Suffolk Downs and Mohegan Sun then struck a deal to partner and had to quickly rework the project and move it to the Revere side of the grounds. Voters then needed to go back to the polls because under state law, the host community must agree to the plan.
Voters in Everett supported the Wynn plan by an overwhelming 86% margin last June.
Under terms of the deal between Mohegan Sun and Suffolk Downs, if awarded the license the track must be the landlord and Mohegan Sun would own and operate the gaming. Under state law racing and gaming must be separate entities. But Suffolk Downs principal owner Richard Fields has promised to continue live racing for a minimum of 15 years as long as Mohegan Sun secures the license.
"Second chances are a great thing in life," Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle said at a victory celebration at the track. "This is another big step for the future of New England racing. We want nothing more than to be able to race here for another 15 to 20 years, and beyond, and look forward to winning the license and our partnership with Mohegan Sun."
Said New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association president Anthony Spadea: "Like Chip said, second chances are wonderful. We're really excited that we're moving forward in the process to win the casino license. We are thankful to Suffolk Downs and Mohegan Sun for working so hard on this."
But if Wynn Resorts is the successful applicant, racetrack ownership conceded that the 2014 meet, which is conditionally scheduled to be run from May 3-Sept. 1, most likely would be the track's last.
The New England HBPA and track management have agreed on a tentative contract for the upcoming meet, though attorneys for both sides continue to hammer out the final details. The barn area is slated to open March 23.