As New England Thoroughbred horsemen and stakeholders continue to anticipate a precarious fate, The Stronach Group is looking at possible expansion into the region.
"We think Boston is a good market and we don't want it to go away. We're in preliminary talks with George Carney, but it's very early," said Tim Ritvo, The Stronach Group's chief operating officer.
George Carney is the owner of Raynham Park, a former Greyhound racetrack located in southeastern Massachusetts, not far from the Rhode Island border. The Carney family switched the property to a simulcasting-only site after dog racing in the state was outlawed in 2010.
Family spokesman Chris Carney, George's son, was unavailable for comment June 22, but Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association president Bill Lagorio, who tried with the family to resurrect live Thoroughbred racing at the Carney-owned Brockton Fairgrounds in Massachusetts in 2016, confirmed the conversation with Ritvo.
"I spoke to Timmy and he said they talked on Monday, and the talks went very well. We'll take it from there," said Lagorio, a longtime trainer who has known Ritvo since the executive and Boston native began his career as a young jockey at New England tracks.
Lagorio, who represents the group of owners and trainers that broke off from the New England chapter of the Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association two years ago, added that members Massachusetts Gaming Commission recently toured Raynham Park and Ritvo told him that he has been in contact with the MGC.
"We're actively looking at acquiring that site for some Thoroughbred racing next year," Lagorio said.
Suffolk Downs, which is poised to open July 8 for its 2017 meet, now races six days per year over three weekends in the summer under a racing festival format and distributes daily average purses of $500,000.
Track owners, who declared in September of 2014 that live racing was no longer economically viable after losing their bid for the Boston area's lone casino license, have kept Suffolk going with year-round simulcasting and six-day meets in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Suffolk's owners sold the 161-acre property to a major real estate developer for $155 million in May, but have leased back the racing and simulcasting operation, and they plan to race another six days at a minimum in 2018. There are no guarantees beyond next year.
Meanwhile, the NEHBPA has been working to develop and own a new, state-of-the-art, non-profit, one-mile racetrack and turf course with an equine center in another part of the state. The bill in support of the horse park, which would be run by horsemen, is making its way through the state legislature and seeking additional support.
On Thursday NEHBPA officials said they were surprised to learn that The Stronach Group and George Carney are engaged in discussions about turning Raynham Park into a live Thoroughbred venue.
"I had talked to Tim Ritvo two months ago to see if (Frank) Stronach would like to be a part of the horse park, and at that time he showed no interest in The Stronach Group coming in and investing in Massachusetts," said NEHBPA executive director Paul Umbrello. "I told him to keep in touch with me if anything changed or materialized. Now, in light of this, I'll have a call in to him.
"I still feel the horse park is a better solution—and a viable solution—for the horsemen and the Commonwealth. We want to do what is best for the horsemen and what will keep racing alive in New England and preserve the industry jobs."
Although Raynham Park has a fully functional clubhouse, there is no stable area, no support facilities or living quarters, and no turf course. The old dog track oval measures a quarter-mile.
"Last year, Chris, George, and myself went in there with site engineers and laid out a Thoroughbred track. Of course, if Stronach gets involved, their own people will come in quickly and take a look," Lagorio said. "I can't put words into Timmy's mouth, but think about Gulfstream (Park) and how they tore that down to build new but kept going during construction. Stronach is a group that has all the resources.
"There could be some temporary barns to get things going, and maybe there could be a temporary grandstand. This is a group that could snap its fingers and have 100 pieces of equipment operating by September."
Lagorio said he thinks Raynham could run a full Thoroughbred meet as early as 2018.
"I asked Timmy if, in a perfect world, we could be up and racing by late spring (or) early summer of next year and he said to me, 'Absolutely.' They realize this is a great market," Lagorio said.
Suffolk's purse structure is fueled by the state's Race Horse Development Fund, which was mandated by the Massachusetts expanding gaming law of 2011 and is supplied by license fees and a percentage of the revenue from the burgeoning casino industry.
But the RHDF, and its $15 million designated for racing sitting in the ever-growing pot, is in serious jeopardy.
The state Senate just passed an amendment to its version of the 2018 budget that rescinds the RHDF and redirects the money to public programs, and now the matter is in the hands of a six-member conference committee charged with reconciling the differences in the House of Representatives and Senate versions of the budget bill. The deadline for passing the budget bill is July 1.
Lagorio said that the potential loss of the RHDF has not scared away The Stronach Group.
"Tim told the (MGC) commissioners that they don't depend on auxiliary or supplemental funds for purses. They'll certainly use the Race Horse Development Fund to prop up the purses, but all their racetracks survive using live handle and simulcasting. If the RHDF were there, certainly they would use it to augment purses. They do not need that as a prerequisite to come in here and begin racing," he said.
Massachusetts law currently mandates that a racing license holder run a meet of from one to 50 days in order to retain simulcasting rights.
"I'm optimistic we can run full-time racing next year (at Raynham). If it were to be 50 days, remember that Gulfstream started at 50 days (after The Stronach Group purchased the track) and now they run year-round. Just a start of 50 days is far more than we've had since 2014," Lagorio said.
Lagorio also acknowledged that it's still early in the process for any potential deal between the Carney family and The Stronach Group.
"The horsemen are in trouble. This is a wonderful marketplace. It's a great sports market and a great racing market. What we need is a viable venue so we can move forward. A good outlet is Raynham," he said. "At this stage, the talks are just preliminary and I'm leaving it up to George and to Timmy."