In the wake of the news that the management team of Suffolk Downs and two New England horsemen's associations have cut a deal for a long-term lease with the owners of the Great Barrington Fairgrounds to restore the former track and conduct live racing there after the Boston landmark closes, horsemen and industry stakeholders were cautiously optimistic.
While looking ahead, they were keeping a close eye on the Massachusetts State Legislature, where some lawmakers are trying to take away $15 million from the state's Race Horse Development Fund and shift the money into the General Fund.
The RHDF, which is fueled by a percentage of expanded gambling profits, supplies the purses and supports the breeders and backstretch welfare programs.
A similar move by state senators to strip money from the RHDF was defeated in the 2017 legislative session when it was not included in the final compromise bill with state representatives. The 2018 Massachusetts' annual budget bill, which includes a section to take away the money, is scheduled for approval in the Senate this week.
Meanwhile Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC, which retained the racing and simulcasting rights after Suffolk Downs was sold as real estate one year ago and continues to lease the operations from the track's new owners, the New England HBPA, and the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders' Association are moving forward to revive racing at Great Barrington.
Formerly part of the now-disbanded Massachusetts fair circuit, the then-owners of Great Barrington stopped racing in 1998. The current owners, Fairgrounds Realty LLC and the Fair Grounds Community Redevelopment Project, are teaming with SSR to bring back Thoroughbred racing.
"We've been working with the Mass Breeders and the HBPA for some time and we were all looking for a way to continue racing and give our local horsemen the opportunity to compete for purse money. After carefully examining options and careful consideration, we clearly feel this is the best option," said SSR COO Chip Tuttle.
The triumvirate of SSR, the MTBA, and the NEHBPA investigated 10 different sites, and they ranged from raw, uncut land to other quasi-developments. The Great Barrington site will need extensive renovations and rehabbing to the grandstand, racetrack, and other structures before it can be resurrected for racing, but at least the infrastructure is there.
What isn't there is a one-mile oval or a turf course. Tuttle said that they are hopeful of enlarging the track, which measures five furlongs, but he could not estimate a cost of what will be a total renovation project because engineering and other studies and due diligence are not completed.
"I don't think anyone's thrilled about racing there, but it's a necessity because if we don't race in Massachusetts while we wait around for somebody to build a track (with a one-mile racing strip and turf course), we risk losing not just that $15 million, but the whole Race Horse Development Fund," said trainer Kevin McCarthy, who relocated his operation from New England to Finger Lakes once Suffolk switched to six day live meets in 2015. "Now we have to worry about if the money is going to be there, or is it not? But I look for the good in things. Great Barrington is closer to a good horse population than Boston is. It's not that far from Finger Lakes and the NYRA tracks and I hope horses will ship in.
"I'd like to see the track expanded to at least six furlongs and have those narrow turns widened, but the main thing is to protect the Race Horse Development Fund and make sure the horse population is big enough. So I'll support racing at Great Barrington," added McCarthy.
Chris Carney, whose family owns the shuttered Brockton Fairgrounds as well as Raynham Park, which is a former greyhound track, partnered with the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, a rival horsemen's group, in hopes of bringing live Thoroughbred racing back to Brockton two years ago. Thoroughbreds last raced there in 2001.
When the Massachusetts Gaming Commission ruled it was not empowered by state law to allocate a portion of the RHDF for capital improvements, the discussion moved to a potential redevelopment of Raynham Park with The Stronach Group as a possible investor and partner.
One of the strenuous objections, particularly from some horsemen, to both plans was the lack of a one-mile oval and a turf course at Brockton and at Raynham.
"A six-furlong track wasn't good enough for Brockton but now it's good enough for Great Barrington? And no turf course. What's different there than Brockton other than the location? All for a sudden that works for you?" asked Carney. "I don't understand it."
Tim Ritvo, the COO of The Stronach Group, did not respond to a request for comment but Carney said the parties are still in contact and continuing the conversation.
"Maybe this news about Suffolk and Great Barrington will spur them to do something. Everybody is after the Race Horse Development Fund and the simulcasting rights, and maybe even sports betting in the future," Carney said. "I always talk to Timmy. If something works, maybe there is a deal that can be made."
What is certain is that no shovels will be going into the ground at Great Barrington immediately. SSR, which holds a license for racing and simulcasting in only Suffolk County where the Suffolk Downs property is located, the MBTA and the NEHBPA want to get a handle on what Massachusetts lawmakers intend to do.
The current racing statutes will sunset July 31 and SSR is seeking a long term commitment from the state to the racing industry.
In related news, at its May 24 monthly hearing the Massachusetts Gaming Commission approved the request by Suffolk's Downs management for a dispersal of $3.5 million from the RHDF to be used exclusively for purses for the upcoming six day meet, which begins June 9. Commissioners also approved a 16% takeout on straight bets and a rate of 19% on exotic wagers for the six-day 2018 live season.