Fallout From NEHBPA, Suffolk Dispute Spreads

Horsemen are worried about their plans for 2011 being up in the air.

By Lynne Snierson

While the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association board of directors held a closed door meeting the night of Feb. 8, others were feeling the fallout from the ongoing and bitter dispute with the management of Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts over a contract for live racing in 2011.

“I spoke with a couple of the other riders today, and as a whole, everyone is very disappointed with the way things are going. We don’t know which way to turn or who to blame,” said David Amiss, who has ridden in New England for more than 20 years. “It’s a misfortune to see the continuing demise of racing in New England. We saw the same thing happen at Rockingham (in 2002) and now there’s no more racing there and no more circuit. This affects an awful lot of people. As for the riders, we’re all up in the air. Our lives are in limbo. In the next few weeks, we have to make a decision where we’re going to ride and it’s not that easy to just pick up your tack and move on. You have to have a plan and you have to have a destination. You can’t just show up somewhere. I need to support my family and I can’t do that if I don’t know where I can work.”

The NEHBPA and Suffolk are arguing over the purse structure, the number of live racing days, and the split of the simulcasting revenue. At this juncture, there is no thaw in the frosty negotiations.

But there is steam behind a rival group of horsemen, which feels it can do a better job of reaching agreement than the NEHBPA. Suffolk Down chief executive officer Chip Tuttle maintains that management is legally free to negotiate with groups other than the NEHBPA.

A newly-created group calling itself the Thoroughbred Horsemen of Massachusetts posted a page back on Facebook after it was taken down over the weekend. The group identified itself as “a newly formed organization reaching out to the horsemen of Massachusetts who race regularly at Suffolk Downs. If you feel that the NEHBPA is misrepresenting Massachusetts horsemen in their quest to sign a purse agreement for the Suffolk Downs 2011 race meet, then we want to hear from you.”

There were no comments on the thread and as of the evening of Feb. 8, no one had “liked” the site. Phone calls to one owner and breeder said to be the founder of the new group were not returned. Although no one may be stepping forward publicly, plenty of longtime New England horsemen were more than willing to voice their displeasure with their bargaining representatives as long as their comments were off the record.

“I can’t believe what a nightmare this is,” said one trainer currently stabled in Florida who requested anonymity. “We need a contract in place and it’s already late in the game if we’re going to be able to ship in and start racing again at the beginning of May. We need to submit stall applications and firm up plans. It won’t be easy to get stalls at other places because all of the other tracks on the East Coast offer higher purses and space there is at a premium. Even if we could get in, we don’t have the horses to compete. Those who have Mass-breds in their barn need to race in Massachusetts. We want to race at Suffolk Downs this year, and unfortunately, many of us don’t have a lot of alternatives. Racing for less money and fewer days is better than not racing at all.”

While the two sides have battled behind closed doors and in the media, the NEHBPA withdrew its consent for simulcasts of races from the New York Racing Association Jan. 29 and then the HBPA chapters in Ohio, Florida, and Oregon pulled their signals in a show of support over the weekend of Feb. 5 and 6.

Having fewer offerings on the simulcast menu affects the ability of Suffolk Downs to generate purse money and raise racetrack revenue. The races from Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs, and Aqueduct have always enjoyed popularity with bettors in Massachusetts, who also are now prohibited from playing those tracks through their Advance Deposit Wagering accounts.

The inability of Suffolk Downs to offer those signals is causing worry among track workers.

On Feb. 8, it was reported that Louis Ciarlone, president of Local 123, sent a missive to the NEHBPA calling its actions “deplorable and patently unfair”. The union, which represents 184 blue collar workers at the track, said it feared that its members will lose hours, shifts, and even their jobs if the impasse continues.

Tuttle, who was unavailable for comment, has tried to allay the concerns of the different factions by consistently stating management’s position that the track will host a live meet in 2011.