By John Lynds
After two consecutive runs of the Massachusetts Handicap (MassCap) in 2007 and 2008 at Suffolk Downs Racetrack in East Boston, horseracing fans thought the famed race was back for good.
However, the race, which featured historic wins by Seabiscuit and Cigar, is not immune to the country’s economic downturn.
Last week, track officials announced because of economic conditions, Suffolk Downs won’t conduct the Massachusetts Handicap in September 2009.
“It’s a difficult decision because it means so much to the loyal racing fans of New England and to everyone at the track, but our partnership does not think we can responsibly incur the expense of the MassCap when we are fighting to save jobs and maintain current purse levels for the horsemen who are here every day,” said Richard Fields, Suffolk Downs’ principal shareholder. “Like so many businesses and families in the Boston area and throughout the country that are tightening their belts to weather the current economic storm, we have also been forced to make some difficult choices. We hope this is a temporary setback and that the local fans will continue to support our efforts to enhance racing in Massachusetts.”
Al Balestra, president of the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said while his group is disappointed that there will be no MassCap this year, he pointed out that Suffolk Downs’ ownership raised purse levels in 2007 and has been working hard to maintain them and to support horsemen and local farms, despite tough economic conditions.
Last year, the 66th running of the MassCap carried a guaranteed purse of $500,000, with $300,000 going to the winner. The MassCap became one of five Classic Division races in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Challenge – a series of automatic qualifiers for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. In the Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” format, the winner of last year’s MassCap automatically qualify for entry in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which was run on October 25, 2008 at Oak Tree at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
The MassCap was run every year from the track’s inaugural season in 1935 until it closed in 1989. After the track reopened in 1992, the MassCap didn’t return until the 1995 season. It was suspended in 2003, 2005 and 2006.
”While the cancellation is very disappointing it is a sign of times here in Massachusetts and the rest of the country as we see cuts and belt-tightening in all forms of government and business,” said Senator Anthony Petruccelli. “With that said, I am hopeful there will be a return of the MassCap in future.”
Representative Carlo Basile said he was saddened about the news.
“The MassCap has become a local race fans look forward to,” said Representative Carlo Basile. “I do understand, however, the position Suffolk Downs ownership is in during these difficult economic times, and I respect their efforts to save jobs.
Basile added that Suffolk Downs is a great employer to many Eastie residents and has been for a long time.
“This is why I respect any decision that is made in order to preserve jobs. I do look forward to seeing the MassCap return next year,” said Basile.
City Councilor Sal LaMattina said he, too, was very disappointed with Suffolk Downs’ ownership’s decision to cancel the MassCap.
“I think a lot of us in East Boston enjoyed the excitement of that day,” said LaMattina. “The MassCap was a good opportunity to showcase Suffolk Downs.”
It’s no secret that Fields and Suffolk Downs are extremely interested in attaining an expanded gaming license if the state legalizes gambling.
Whether Suffolk Downs’ decision to cancel its signature race will sway some that are on the fence about legalized gaming remains to be seen. However, one can conclude that the cancellation of the race will give ownership a good argument for slots or other gaming in the future in order to save the thoroughbred industry…an argument that has been used for a few years now.