Massachusetts Horse Industry Goes Dark for a Day

Led by a united New England Horsemen's Benevolent Protective Association, and with the support of workers and officials at Suffolk Downs, the Massachusetts horse racing industry cancelled the live Sept. 28 card at the East Boston racetrack.

A group of nearly 500 horsemen and track employees--traveling by bus from the Suffolk Downs parking lot and organized by the NEHBPA--went to the capitol to show the industry's strength at the State House on Boston's Beacon Hill during a public hearing on racing legislation.

On the agenda before the legislature's Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure was the state's general racing bill, set to expire at the end of the year. A renewal of the bill could include expanded gaming provisions its supporters say are necessary for the survival of Thoroughbred racing in the state.

"This was a phenomenal show of support, our strongest in over a decade," said NEHBPA legislative committee chairman Jeff Hooper. "We felt it was that big an issue with us to cancel a day of racing and it makes you proud as a horseman. We made our case and I think they heard us."

Hooper said the industry contributes more than $300 million to the economy and provides more than 3,000 jobs. The show of solidarity comes with Suffolk officials openly saying the historic venue may not survive more than a few years without revenue from expanded gambling.

"We want to remain as long as we can," said Christan Teja, Suffolk Downs' director of media and public relations. "The general consensus is that it will only be a few years. We need to stay competitive with other states (with casinos), and make our purses competitive with states that get a boost from expanded gaming revenue."

Teja said the dark day would be rescheduled.

Earlier in the month, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said he would veto any legislation seeking to expand gambling in the state, marking a significant change in position since being elected to office in 2002 in a time of fiscal deficit.

Romney's threats came as leaders in the Massachusetts Senate prepare to push for two new casinos, and for the establishment of roughly 3,500 slot machines at each of the state's four struggling racetracks, which include two greyhound facilities and a harness racing track.

The Boston Globe reported Sept. 16 that Romney's turnabout came, not from a healthier financial picture in the state, but amid mounting pressure from anti-gambling activists in key presidential primary states, specifically Iowa, where Romney is expected to present a keynote speech at a fundraiser Oct. 29.

Romney is widely known to be considering a run for the Republican Party nomination in 2008. Should he veto any legislation, two-thirds of both chambers would be needed to override, posing a significant hurdle to gambling supporters.

Historically, gambling bills in the state have had trouble gaining a simple majority.