Suffolk Downs Sale Approved by Gaming Commission

The sale of Suffolk Downs to a major Boston real estate development company was given a green light by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission at a public hearing March 30, but the deal will not adversely affect the six-day live meet planned for this summer.

The Commissioners voted 4-0 to approve the track's request, which is for the sale of the 161-acre racetrack grounds only, and the closing is scheduled for April 27. The sale's price was not disclosed.

Under terms of the agreement, Sterling Suffolk Racecourse will retain its racing and simulcasting license and has a lease in place with the buyer, McClellan Highway Development Company, which is a subsidiary of the HYM Investment Group, to continue those operations through January 2018.

Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs, testified that there is an option in place to renew the lease and allow live racing to continue for another year. That would be decided by October, when the racetrack must submit its annual racing dates application to the MGC.

In a letter filed with the gaming commission, Sterling Suffolk stated its intention to host a live meet in 2018, provided development activities permit, as well as continue to simulcast. The letter also stated as part of a retention of its racing license, it hopes "to continue simulcasting operations over the longer term in another location and to preserve its workforce."

Tuttle told the commissioners that under the terms of the lease. the buyers will be landlords only and Sterling Suffolk will be completely responsible for all aspects of racing and simulcasting. Therefore, the landlords will be restricted from areas like the money room and all others that could have the potential to affect the integrity of racing.

Approval by the MGC was required to sell the property because Suffolk Downs is the current licensee. That rule is part of old Massachusetts racing statutes dating to when legislators figured that any buyer of the property would be operating the facility as a racetrack. 

Anthony Spadea, president of the New England chapter of the Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association, was philosophical about the impending sale of Suffolk Downs, which was built in 1935 and is the last of the 17 Thoroughbred racetracks that once operated in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

"We're disappointed, because this does take away the possibility for us to keep at least some kind of racing alive at Suffolk Downs for the long term, but the good thing about it is that now that there won't be full-time racing for us there, everybody has to buckle down and reach a solution to the problem so we can keep our people in the game," he said.

The NEHBPA is currently working on development plans for a non-profit, state-of-the-art equine center that would include a one-mile main track, a seven-eighths turf course, and a farm for retired racehorses to be built in another part of the state. The horse park would be operated by horsemen, for horsemen.

The NEHBPA is currently working to advance an enabling bill for the equine center/horse park through the state legislature.

"We have to do this quickly to keep people in our business working, help the breeders, and preserve the farms. Because of the Suffolk situation, the gaming commission has been very positive in working with us to get a place and a location for the horse park so we can return to full-time live Thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts," Spadea said. 

The eventual sale of Suffolk Downs to a real estate development company and the end of live racing there became a fait d'accompli in September of 2014 when the MGC awarded the single Boston-area destination casino license to Wynn Resorts instead of the Mohegan Sun/Suffolk Downs partnership. In the wake of the decision, Suffolk's owners announced that live racing would no longer be economically feasible and the property would be sold.

The Wynn Boston, now a $2.4 billion development, is currently under construction just two miles from Suffolk's stable gate and is slated to open in 2018.

Suffolk Downs is scheduled to race six days in 2017—July 8-9, Aug. 5-6, and Sept. 2-3. A similar six-day meet is being planned for 2018.