Suffolk Downs

Suffolk Downs

Chip Bott

'Sink or Swim' in Suffolk Downs Negotiations

The NEHBPA and Suffolk still haven't struck a deal on a 2011 contract.

By Lynne Snierson

The general counsel for the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association said the afternoon of Feb. 28 negotiations have reached the “sink or swim” point on a contract resolution for 2011. The dispute is now in its sixth week.

“We have been in discussions today and they will continue on into the night,” Frank Frisoli said. “Suffolk talked to us and addressed the board (of directors). We are at the sink or swim point right now. I expect to be able to comment more on where we are (March 1).”

There is no contract despite recent developments that have the horsemen agreeing to accept the number of live racing days required by state statute and the latest purse structure proposed by the track. But the two sides remain far apart on a key issue.

Suffolk requested the NEHBPA work with the track in support of legislation to reduce the current minimum of 100 days of live racing mandated by state statute. The East Boston, Mass., track also asked that if the horsemen wouldn't support them in that effort, they wouldn't stand in opposition to the bill. The NEHBPA adamantly refused to comply.

“This demand requiring support of the legislative agenda of (Suffolk Sterling Racecourse) is totally unacceptable and inappropriate,” Frisoli said Feb. 25. “The NEHBPA cannot accede to it. The NEHBPA reserves its rights to seek legislative action that is in the best interest of the NEHBPA, the Massachusetts breeding industry, and Massachusetts farms. It will not abrogate that right as a condition of entering into a purse agreement for 2011.”

Suffolk does not need the permission of the NEHBPA to pursue its legislative agenda.

Christian Teja, Suffolk’s vice president of communications and marketing, had no comment Feb. 28 about the latest twist in the talks. On Feb. 25 he said: “The increase in purses in our most recent proposal was contingent upon one condition: neutrality on legislation to reduce the number of days required to simulcast. That is a condition the NEHBPA is unwilling to meet. We will assess all of our options, including legislative relief independent of the HBPA.”

Frisoli explained where the horsemen stand. “Our board voted to run for whatever number of days the law in Massachusetts requires,” he said. “The NEHBPA has been bargaining for 100 days, and prior to the vote, would not accept a contract unless it required 100 days in 2011.”

The attorney said horsemen have made a “significant concession” to now agree to race for a minimum of 80 days in 2011, provided Suffolk is able to get the current law changed.

If state law remains unchanged, horsemen accept the $8.25 million that was to be distributed over 80 days will instead be allocated over the 100 days

“We are prepared to race for the same amount of money they proposed,” Frisoli said. “Whether we end up racing for $80,000 a day, $90,000, or $100,000 remains to be seen based upon what the law is and the number of days. If Suffolk is successful with their legislation, then we’ll have fewer days.”

While the sides have battled, the NEHBPA and horsemen across the country shut down simulcast signals. Suffolk experienced a dramatic decline in handle, which is used to generate purses, in February; business was off 44.9% through Feb. 23. As a result, Suffolk has cut back staffing and hours of operation, and officials said the possibility exists the track may close altogether in March.

During the dispute, Rockingham Park, located only 30 miles north of Boston, has experienced a boom in its simulcasting business. The weekend of Feb. 26-27 the clubhouse was packed with bettors from Massachusetts who were wagering on tracks prohibited at Suffolk Downs.

A track official wouldn't comment on the percentage increase in pari-mutuel handle. Rockingham last held a Thoroughbred meet in 2002 and no longer conducts any type of live racing.