Suffolk, Horsemen to Resume Negotiations

Dispute has led to a cutback in simulcasting at New England track.

By Lynne Snierson

The management of Suffolk Downs and the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association are headed back to the bargaining table to seek resolution on a new contract for 2011, according to Frank Frisoli, the horsemen’s general counsel. The two factions have been embroiled in an acrimonious dispute for over three weeks.

Frisoli said on Feb. 16 that a conference call among the negotiating teams for both sides has been scheduled for late afternoon on Thursday (Feb. 17). Suffolk Chief Executive Officer Chip Tuttle was out of the office and unavailable for comment

“I’m trying to get this resolved. We want to race this year and we want to have a good relationship with them,” said Frisoli. “We have been flexible and they have been rigid. But now they want to talk to us, and that is a good sign.”

The disagreement has been about the number of live racing days, the purse structure, and the split of the simulcasting revenue. Frisoli stated the horsemen’s position in an e-mail he sent to The Blood-Horse on Wednesday evening. It read in part, “Our last proposal, to which Suffolk has not responded, was to share simulcast net commissions (after payment of all expenses other than purses) 50/50 and to share revenue from all other sources in the same manner as provided in the last contract signed for 2009. Our differences appear to be solely on division of the net profit from simulcasting. We believe this profit is shared in every other state 50-50 either by statute or by contract.  Suffolk Downs has yet to advise us of a single jurisdiction that does not share that profit 50-50…. the share of that profit paid to purses (at Suffolk Downs) has been declining the last 3 years.”

Frisoli explained that Massachusetts law references a percentage of the simulcasting handle rather than a percentage of the net commissions.  He estimated that 4% of the simulcast handle usually approximates 27% of the net commissions and 7.5% of the approximate 50% of the net commissions.

“Look at what all of the other tracks across the country have done,” said Frisoli. “If they are willing to share the revenue 50-50 as we have asked, then we’ll have a deal.”

The horsemen, who raced at the East Boston, Massachusetts track in 2010 without a contract, initially requested a purse guarantee of $100,000 per day for 100 days of live racing. The track’s position has been that under current economic conditions, it can only conduct 67 days of racing and could later extend the meet if expanded gaming legislation were to pass in Massachusetts.

Frisoli said that the last offer from the NEHBPA did not require Suffolk Downs to guarantee the daily purse distribution or the total amount of purses paid. “We believe that if Suffolk Downs shares the net profit from simulcasting in the same manner as every other jurisdiction, we would have adequate funding for purses which would allow (the horsemen) to race and actually recover the costs of caring for their horses,” he explained. “I’ve crunched the numbers and I think we can make it. If not, we’ll live with it. We’re looking at the long-term model.”

While track management and the NEHBPA have been at odds, the horsemen withdrew their consent for races from the New York Racing Association to be simulcast and subsequently horsemen in Ohio, Florida, Oregon, and Maryland pulled their signals. As a result, the track has reduced its operations and cut back staffing, which Tuttle earlier said has caused emotional and economic harm to many employees.

“Revenue has been lost because of this dispute. The losses would be shared equally by Suffolk Downs and the NEHBPA,” said Frisoli. “Although we believe that Suffolk caused this dispute and should therefore equitably be held accountable for the loss, we are still agreeing to share the loss.”