Suffolk Gets New Race Schedule

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) approved a three-day racing schedule and a $1.425 million withdrawal from the state’s new Race Horse Development Fund to supplement the meet’s purses, but some 350 local horsemen have withdrawn from their organization and are protesting the move.

“We supported the industry every year for 20 years with the hope that one day gaming would come to the Commonwealth and help our industry,” said Bernie Bramante of Medford, who recently signed on with the new organization, the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “Now, the money is here and we don’t have a shot at it. Now that it has come, the plan is to give it to a bunch of people from out of state.”

That was the unanimous reaction from many of the locals in the industry who felt they had been ripped off after last Thursday’s hearing. Many of those that showed up at the hearing had left the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent Protection Association (HBPA) recently, saying the organization had betrayed them in advocating for a three-day schedule – something the HBPA and Suffolk Downs dispute.

But their vocal presence Thursday couldn’t sway the MGC to delay things a third time, and they voted 4-1 to approve a three-day racing schedule on Sept. 5, Oct. 3 and Oct. 31. They also approved the first withdrawal ($1.425 million) from the thoroughbred portion of the Race Horse Development Fund, which is funded by casino money. The MGC did reject a request from Suffolk Downs for $325,000 to investigate new facilities for racing.

Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle said he expected to have larger than normal purses for the short schedule. He said they would average about $500,000 per day.

He also said that most of the horses and associated staff would be coming up to race from New York, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“When our meet ended in October, you had a handful of horses that retired,” he said. “The vast majority of the rest go south for the winter. From our understanding, for the three days we’ll have to get people to ship in to do that. It is an experiment for sure.”

He said he pictured the three days as being a celebration of racing, and also hoped to include some local horses on the cards.

A key part of having racing for Suffolk Downs is to keep their simulcasting signal. Previously, a full live racing meet had to be run for Suffolk to maintain its signal. However, due to a bill passed last year and championed by Speaker Bob DeLeo and Sen. Anthony Petruccelli in order to protect the track and the horsemen, Suffolk can now keep its signal while running only one day or more of live racing.

The three-day plan was supported by the HBPA and its president, Anthony Spadea, but rejected by the growing numbers of former HBPA members.

“There’s no way they can put this together unless they give all of that money to out of towners,” said Gary Saccocia, the former HBPA vice president and a former long-time board member. “I had a lot of answers for them today at this hearing, but they didn’t take questions.”

Spadea said afterward that he didn’t want to comment too much on the situation, as it is very difficult.

“I’m looking for good things to happen for everyone,” he said. “These are all wonderful people having a hard time losing their jobs. I have nothing but sympathy and empathy for them. I have nothing but good things to say about them. I hope to have good news that will help everyone and put everyone back to work – the farmers, the horsemen and everyone.”

Meanwhile, Tuttle said they are only contracted to work with the official organization, the HBPA. He said they are contracted with them through July 2016 and cannot recognize any other organization.

That said, the official organization is much smaller than it once was, as a reported 350 to 400 local horsemen and breeders have left the HBPA for the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

Revere resident Bill Lagorio is their leader, and he said the hope on Thursday was to get the MGC to reject the three-day application – which was needed in order for Suffolk to continue broadcasting its simulcast signal.

The renegade horsemen had hoped to buy time in order to bring in horseracing dynamo, the Stronach Group – which operates such legendary tracks as Pimlico and Santa Anita.

In comments in the Boston Globe last week, Beachmont native and Stronach Group COO Tim Ritvo said the company was interested in operating Suffolk Downs and called Boston’s racing scene “lucrative.”

MGC Commissioner Gayle Cameron seemed to be on board with the idea and with the renegade horsemen’s idea of getting a longer meet than three days. She even chastised Suffolk Downs for its staff, consultants and officials not acting professionally throughout the discourse over the past few months. But, in the end, the Stronach Group – in conversations with her – was not able to commit to acting on their interest this racing season.

That left only one option.

“We did have discussions with Tim Ritvo and he is certainly excited about doing something with racing in the Commonwealth,” she said. “The problem given the late date was that it was nearly impossible this year. It’s August already. Perhaps next year or the year after. This year was not something, though, that they thought was possible…It’s unfortunate there is not consensus, but this is the only proposal on the table. We’ve given the opportunity for others to come forward to have a longer meet. I’m inclined to believe that’s not going to happen.”

All of it left a sour taste in the mouths of some locals.

One breeder said he had been racing at Suffolk Downs for 35 years, and this was probably the end for him.

“I’ve never raced anywhere else except Suffolk Downs – 35 years,” said Norton’s Dale Salim, the largest single breeder in Massachusetts and a member of the new organization. “What’s going to happen now? It’s the end of our racing industry.”

Another generational horse farm operator, Tim Ryan, said the same thing. He said he has Mass-bred horses that have come out of his farm and been successful, but he only has four horses now with a capacity for 40.

“I’m the third generation of New England thoroughbred owners and breeders,” he said. “My grandfather, my father, my sister and my son are all involved. I have four Mass-bred horses with nowhere to go. I have four horses and a capacity for 40. It used to be very productive. It used to have full-time workers. No one is full-time now. No one represented me today.”

Lagorio agreed, saying not one person in Massachusetts in the industry will benefit from a fund he said was created to help the local industry.

“It’s a decision that doesn’t help one resident of Massachusetts,” he said. “Everybody’s a loser on this.”

Tuttle said there wouldn’t be a tremendous amount of marketing put into the three-day event, but he said he believes it will attract a higher-level horse due to the enhanced purses, and therefore, more fan interest.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that there just isn’t a market locally for $100,000 per day purses,” he said.

Suffolk Downs had what was thought to be the last official day of racing ever last October, but Tuttle said that a petition by the Horsemen earlier this year led to the emergence of the three-day plan – allowing another, albeit shorter, running of the horses at Suffolk.

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