For many at Suffolk Downs, a casino wasn’t near and dear to their hearts, but it was a means of preserving a way of life and a trade that was as much a part of them as the air they breathed.
“Every weekend, every day after school and every summer was about being at Suffolk Downs for me,” said Revere’s Caitlin Lezell, whose family has been firmly involved in the track for three generations. “I spent almost my entire childhood within both this racetrack’s fences and those of Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire. I learned how to ride a bicycle at Suffolk Downs, how to drive a car – heck, probably even how to walk. It was my first summer job, my primary weekend activity for years and years, where my parents first met, and, furthermore, the main place of employment for half of my family since decades before I was even born…Once the track closes, all this will be gone with it. The memories will only remain.”
On Monday, Mayor Dan Rizzo announced that the track would shut its doors after 79 years on Nov. 20.
“I received notification the other day that the track will be closing for good on Nov. 20 and that is the end of a 79-year legacy. This is a bad week and we all deserve…and are entitled to be upset. At the same time, we have a lot of things we need to work on in order to move on from this.”
On Tuesday, Suffolk Downs announced that its last live race would take place on Saturday, Oct. 4. Though the last day was to be Monday, Sept. 29, Suffolk Downs’ officials said they decided to postpone the final day of live racing for the weekend so that fans could more easily attend and so that there could be an extra week of work for seasonal employees.
“There has been an outpouring of support since last week’s events and we felt that it would be more fitting to have the last day of racing here on a Saturday than on a weekday to give more people a chance to take part in a fitting celebration of the end of an era here,” said Chip Tuttle, Suffolk Downs Chief Operating Officer.
House Speak Bob DeLeo – whose father worked at Suffolk Downs – said it’s time to transition into a new reality.
“The closure of Suffolk Downs after nearly a century of operation in Revere and East Boston is a severe blow to our community,” said DeLeo. “Although it would have been my hope that live racing at Suffolk Downs would continue, the owners have made the decision to close the track. We must prepare to transition to this new reality. My focus is now on assisting those workers who will be displaced. I will be working with state and local officials as well as the workers to determine the best way we can help. I am committed to assisting those touched by this turn of events.”
Tomorrow, Sept. 25, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) has pledged to look at the closure of Suffolk Downs and to discuss what can be done.
“The MGC fully understands and is saddened by the impact discontinuance of live thoroughbred racing at Suffolk Downs will have on the lives of the dedicated men and women who have played a role in racing at the track for many, many years,” read a statement from the MGC. “The Commission and its Racing Division are fully committed to an extensive and sustained exploration of every available option that may preserve the long tradition of thoroughbred racing in the Commonwealth. In addition, the Commission is also dedicated to assisting racing employees through workforce development and by identifying additional employment solutions.”
It was reported that the MGC might have a solution that would keep the track open for one more year of live racing and simulcasting. However, Suffolk Downs officials late last week fired back that they wouldn’t be interested.
“This is one of those cases where the Gaming Commission’s actions speak louder than their words,” said Tuttle in a statement. “For the family of workers here, this feels like empty posturing. The Commission’s actions Tuesday made clear how little value they place on these jobs and these people. That message, while unfortunate, has been received loud and clear by the hundreds of decent hardworking people here now facing unemployment and uncertainty.”
For families like those of Lazell, the closure – if the track indeed cannot be saved – means more than to anyone else. It means being uprooted and moving to another state, or having to learn a new skill set late in life, if that is even possible.
It’s also the end of generations of memories for her, her parents, her three uncles and her grandfather – memories that go back further than most everyone else’s.
She said her father, who is an outrider at the track, has been going to Maryland for the winters over the last several years, and will likely have to go down there for nine months now and then go further into the south for the remaining three months.
She doubted he would be able to return to the family’s Parkway home.
“My mother is a horse trainer and works part-time at other jobs,” said Lezell, who is currently teaching overseas in Guatemala. “She is a life-long Revere resident and she won’t be able to follow my father because she has to take care of my grandfather, who also spent all of his life at Suffolk Downs. You’re either uprooted or you change, and if you’re a trainer on a farm, you can’t just pick up and move a farm.”
More than anything, though, she said she feels for her uncles, who are all in their 40s and 50s and are facing the end of their life-long trade.
“For my uncles, that’s all they know how to do; that’s their trade,” she said. “They have done nothing else their entire lives, just that one trade working with horses. I guess they could work at a gas station or as a cashier somewhere, but that’s kind of demeaning for them after so many years working so hard in their trade. They all have younger kids than me. That’s why I’m so glad I just graduated college this year because it’s one less thing my parents have to worry about.”
In the end, she said it was the workers who were on the block – who really suffered the most. Many, she said, didn’t care about casinos; they cared about preserving a way of life that could be fading away.
“I’m not necessarily a casino proponent and many of the workers weren’t either,” she said. “We were fighting to keep the horses here and the lifestyle we knew alive. That’s what it was going to take for us, but it got so political and so money-driven that the workers were kind of forgotten in this campaign. Their stories were never really told well in this campaign for a casino. Now that it’s all over, everyone wants to help the workers, but it might be too late.”