Suffolk, NEHBPA Close; Deal Expected

New England horsemen, Suffolk Downs likely to strike deal March 2.

By Lynne Snierson

The New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and Suffolk Downs have reached an agreement in principal for a 2011 contract and the deal is expected to be sealed March 2, according to the general counsel for the horsemen.

Only one remaining point of contention prevented the NEHBPA board of directors from accepting Suffolk’s binding proposal March 1.

According to a highly placed source, the NEHPBA voted 6-3 not to accede to one of Suffolk’s demands. The horsemen, who as recently as Feb. 25 still refused to cooperate with the track on its legislative agenda to reduce the minimum of 100 days of live racing currently mandated by state statute, have now agreed not to oppose the track in its pursuit. What they would not go along with is Suffolk’s request the NEHBPA send written letters to the Speaker of the House and the Senate President in Massachusetts which publicly state that horsemen will not stand in opposition to Suffolk’s  position in the state capitol. Suffolk is also trying to get favorable legislation to expand gambling passed in this year’s session.

“There was limited support to accept the letters,” said attorney Frank Frisoli. “What we need is a clarification of terms. I fully expect we will get over this final hurdle and resolve matters tomorrow (March 2). The board also voted in favor of authorizing the president to then accept the terms and sign the deal once this last point is resolved.”

The contract negotiations, which have been acrimonious at times during the six weeks they had dragged on, have taken a far more civil tone in recent days. By the end of February, the two sides had already resolved their differences on the purse structure, the split of the simulcasting revenue, and the number of racing days.

Under the terms of the new deal Suffolk will host a live meet of 80 days, provided the state law is changed, and the NEHBPA also agreed to race fewer than 100 days in 2012 because the legislative cycle spans two years. The program purses will be $8.25 million in 2011 and the track will share the revenue generated by simulcasting 50-50 with the horsemen.

When reached late in the evening Suffolk Downs Chief Executive Officer Chip Tuttle said: “As we strive to offer a competitive racing program for bettors and horsemen alike, it’s great that the HBPA has agreed that fewer days for higher purses is preferable to the alternative. Given that they have agreed not to oppose the change in the statute, I am confident we can resole the remaining minor details.”

There is now a strong spirit of cooperation to finalize the contract March 2 and devote their efforts to the upcoming meet.

“The attitude on both sides now is that we really want to get this done,” said Frisoli, who is also a Thoroughbred owner. “We both want to compromise. We recognize that there probably won’t be racing at the track if we don’t compromise. We recognize that we race 80 days this year or not at all. To not reach a deal is harmful to the industry, the track, the horsemen, the breeders, the bettors, and the employees.”

While the sides engaged in battle, the NEHBPA and horsemen across the country shut down simulcast signals. The local horsemen withdrew their permission for races from the New York racing Association to be simulcast at Suffolk Jan. 28 and then HBPA chapters in Ohio, Florida, Oregon, Maryland, and Oklahoma pulled their signals in solidarity. Suffolk experienced a dramatic decline in handle, which is used to generate purses, in the month of February and as a result, Suffolk had cut back both staffing and hours of operation.

“As soon as the agreement is signed, we will restore the NYRA signal,” said Frisoli, who by federal law cannot instruct the other chapters what to do in this regard. “We will also alert the national HBPA that we have a new deal and then it will be up to the other chapters to decide what they will do. I would expect that to be no different from what we will do.”

A Suffolk official said that although firm dates have yet to be set, Suffolk plans to race from mid to late May through the Breeders’ Cup weekend this year, and the track will now begin the process of printing and distributing stall applications and condition books. The backside will open during the last week in April and the track will be ready for training.