By Lynne Snierson
The New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association was prepared to offer a counterproposal to the management of Suffolk Downs Feb. 9 in an attempt to get back to the bargaining table and end the bitter impasse over a contract for the 2011 live racing season at the East Boston, Mass., track.
“At the meeting of the board of directors (Feb. 8), the motion passed unanimously to approve our offer. A counter proposal is in the works and it may go to Suffolk later today (Feb. 9) or tomorrow,” said Frank Frisoli, attorney for the horsemen. “The board made a unanimous decision that this is an equitable offer and is how we ought to proceed. We remain willing to talk to them.”
Citing the attorney/client privilege of confidentiality, Frisoli would not reveal the details of the counterproposal. Nonetheless, on the afternoon of Feb. 9, the NEHBPA posted on its website an eight page, single-spaced document that is titled “The TRUTH about the Suffolk Downs Purse Dispute Fact Sheet.” The document refuted a separate fact sheet that was generated by Suffolk Downs and was posted on the track’s website two weeks ago.
“I don’t think there is any disagreement what the facts are about the revenues,” said Frisoli after he had reviewed financial information which he stated was requested, but not supplied, by the racetrack until the evening of Feb. 8. “The disagreement is about how to divide those revenues.”
The horsemen raced at Suffolk in 2010 without a contract, and after expanded gaming legislation failed in the Massachusetts legislature last summer, the track was forced to cut purses. The NEHBPA is leery of racing without a signed agreement again in 2011 and now the two sides are battling over the number of live racing days, the amount of purses to be paid, and the split of the revenue generated by simulcasting.
The NEHBPA contends that it is standard procedure throughout the industry for tracks to share simulcasting revenue 50/50 with the horsemen in their jurisdictions, and its members are not getting that rate in New England.
“What we keep coming back to is that what is fair and reasonable, and what is the standard everywhere else is what ought to be how the revenue is divided”, said Frisoli, who has owned Thoroughbreds since 1978 and races at the track. “All we’re asking for is that Suffolk Downs be fair with us.”
Chip Tuttle, Suffolk’s chief executive officer, said: "We should be working together to reach an agreement for 2011 and to pass expanded gaming legislation if we want racing here to thrive. We are hearing from many owners and trainers with grave concerns that the HPBA's self-described ‘militant’ approach may be counter-productive to achieving those key objectives."
While the offer of a counterproposal denotes some progress in what have been very contentious negotiations for some time, no one was ready to speculate that the dispute will be settled any time soon. In an earlier offer, the track offered to pay $7.5 million in purses over 67 to 76 days of racing, provided that the horsemen would work with them to change the Massachusetts statute currently requiring a minimum of 100 live racing days. The position of the NEPHBA is that its members require $10.6 million in purses and 100 days of live racing.
“If their position is that $7.5 million is what they are going to pay, I think we’ve got a long problem here,” Frisoli said.
Meanwhile, Suffolk announced on the night of Feb. 9 that it expects to reduce the hours of operation and staffing in the coming days as a result of lost revenue from being unable to import simulcasts from some other tracks. On Jan. 29, the NEHPBA withdrew its consent for races to be imported from the New York Racing Association and then horsemen in Ohio, Florida, and Oregon pulled their signals in a show of support.