A group of renegade local horsemen held a rousing organizational meeting last week to set goals and update a growing membership about the prospects of returning full-time racing to Suffolk Downs, but the ownership of the track isn’t quite as optimistic as the newly-found group.
Momentum has swung in a big way to the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, a group of long-time Massachusetts horsemen who have withdrawn from the official organization to join the new Revere-based group led by Revere’s Bill Lagorio.
Last Tuesday night, the group congregated at the Beachmont VFW and drew in about 80 members, but said they now boasted more than 300 members. Even some local politicians were there, including Councillors John Powers, Bob Haas, Brian Arrigo and Candidate John Correggio.
The enthusiasm was evident, and many long-time horseracing veterans were in the room – some with four decades of racing, training or breeding experience. They were the faces of the stalwarts who stuck it out when racing was on the brinks; those who said they had always hoped that expanded gaming would save them, but now realize it has become their death knell.
The mood was angry; with many feeling the fresh sting of getting burnt by the single race day run at Suffolk Downs last month.
“Our objective hasn’t changed and it is a return of full-time racing in 2016,” said Lagorio. “We can race at Suffolk Downs and we should have been racing this fall…Meanwhile, Suffolk Downs isn’t so sure things are as rosy as the new organization paints it. Suffolk Downs has a longstanding agreement with the official organization of horsemen, the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent Protection Association (HBPA).
Suffolk COO Chip Tuttle said they haven’t heard from the new organization and they plan to finish out the current meet and race with minimal days again next year.
“We’re not in the business of closing doors, but these potential operators that are talked about have had months and months and months to come up with something and we don’t have anything on the table from anyone,” he said. “I empathize with the horsemen that would like to see more racing locally and we support their long-term goal of developing a facility. As far as our facility goes, our plans are to race some days and operate our signal this year and next year and then move toward the development of the property.”
The operators talked about so often are George Carney of Raynham (former dog track owner) and the Stronach Group of Ontario, Canada. Stronach has expressed an interest in reviving horseracing in Massachusetts as soon as next year. The company successfully operates numerous tracks across the country, including Gulfstream and Pimlico to name a few, and is one of the biggest names in racing.
Lagorio said he has been meeting frequently with them, even as recently as two weeks ago when he had a short meeting in Boston with Stronach CEO Alan Ossip.
That’s where things get contentious.
Lagorio told the organization at the meeting last week that Stronach had offered Suffolk Downs a triple-net lease and $2 million in August to run 40 days at Suffolk Downs this fall. Lagorio said it was turned down.
Tuttle disputes that.
“I would dispute that account,” he said. “We have had no credible offer to lease the facility…There’s been no case made on why we would lease the facility to someone else as opposed to operating it ourselves. Again, there has been no credible legitimate offers to lease this facility.”
The next step for the new association is to be recognized, and Lagorio said they plan to approach the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in the near future to seek out that recognition. Already, they have become a fixture at the MGC where they stood firm for more racing days this summer during several meetings – only to eventually be defeated in their cause.
“We have the respect of the Gaming Commission and we have the respect of the Stronach Group and we have the respect of George Carney in Raynham, who I speak to frequently,” Lagorio said. “Soon, we plan to put an application to the Gaming Commission to be recognized as the representative of the horsemen.”
Tuttle said that could be difficult, as Suffolk Downs can only negotiate with the HBPA, which has represented the horsemen for generations.
“They’ve represented the horsemen here since as far back as I can remember,” he said. “We really don’t have the ability to negotiate with anyone other than the New England HBPA when it comes to racing at the facility.”