Nicole H is the likely favorite for Saturday's Robert M. O'Malley Sprint Stakes.<br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Nicole H is the likely favorite for Saturday's Robert M. O'Malley Sprint Stakes.
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Sprint Stakes, Optimism at Suffolk Downs

The Massachusetts track is anticipating a big day Oct. 22.

by Lynne Snierson

As the 2011 meet nears the wire, there are more smiles around Suffolk Downs than there have been in many years. The 76-year-old racetrack will have a 10-race card with two stakes and full fields Oct. 22, and the promise of expanded gambling in Massachusetts is soon to become reality.

“There is clearly a renewed sense of optimism, and that is not often the case at the end of the meet,” Chip Tuttle, Suffolk Downs chief executive officer, said of the lone Thoroughbred track operating in New England. “The legislative process has been helpful, and there is now the sense that we’ll know where we stand one way or the other very shortly.”

After trying to get legislation passed but coming up empty year after year, the political tides changed this year. A bill authorizing three resort casinos and one facility with slot machines only made it through the House and the Senate by wide margins and is in the hands of a conference committee charged with ironing out minor differences in the two versions. The governor supports expanded gaming and is expected to add his signature before Thanksgiving.

Under the terms of the legislation, all of the licenses have to be competitively bid, and there are no guarantees for racetracks. Suffolk Downs has partnered with Caesars Entertainment and is considered the front-runner for one of the three casino licenses costing $85 million and requiring a minimal investment of $500 million.

“We’ve been consistent in that we think this market requires more than the 10-year-old racino model,” Tuttle said. “We plan to pursue a full resort casino license with horse racing as the centerpiece of that entertainment destination.”

The progress on the legislative front this year includes passage of an earlier bill that reduced the number of state-mandated live racing dates from 100 to 80 per year and extended Suffolk Downs’ simulcasting rights. Fewer days of racing allowed a higher average daily distribution ($103,000) of revenue to horsemen, and the $100,000 Robert M. O’Malley Sprint Stakes for fillies and mares Oct. 22 offers the largest purse paid since the Massachusetts Handicap was last run in 2008.

“We have a great working relationship with the horsemen since we put our past differences to bed with the signing of the new contract this past spring,” Tuttle said. “The horsemen have been very helpful with the EPA compliance issue, they have been helpful on the legislative front, and they have been very supportive of the racing program. They have also been extremely patient through the entire process.”

The O’Malley, named for the late former CEO at Suffolk, drew a full field of 12 and attracted two former New England champions in Sassy City and Winning Image, along with some out-of-town stakes winners.

Nicole H, trained by Michael Hushion, is the likely favorite even though she has been idle since April 16 when she won the Distaff Handicap (gr. II) at Aqueduct as well as two other stakes in her last three outings. Coax Liberty, who was eighth in the Test Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga last out and finished in the money in two other graded stakes this year, and Golden Mystery, a winner of her last two including the Mongo Queen Stakes at Monmouth Park, are also coming to Suffolk.

The $50,000 John Kirby for Massachusetts-breds is another highlight of the day, which will be supported by the first Food Truck Festival at Suffolk Downs.

“I am tickled pink by Saturday’s card,” Tuttle said. “In the day and age when full fields are rare to come by, we have 10, 11, or 12 horses in almost every race. Part of this day is to reward the New England fans for their support and put on a great day of racing for them.”

Suffolk Downs, which this week was fully accredited by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance, wraps up the 2011 meet Breeders’ Cup weekend Nov. 4-5.