Horse Racing Industry Hopes for Legislation, Ready for New Plans

Time is of the essence, say those locally involved in the horseracing industry, but breeders and trainers remain optimistic that the state will approve legislation to allow racing to take place at Suffolk Downs this coming season – perhaps as early as June.

Just last week, members of the regional Horsemen’s Benevolent Protection Association (HBPA) announced a two-year lease agreement with Suffolk Downs to operate the track during the 2015 and 2016 meets. However, that good news was bookended with the caveat that legislation at the State House would need to be approved to make the deal work.

This week, local trainers and breeders said they are cautiously optimistic they’ll get something through in time. If so, they believe it will open up the state’s Race Horse Development Fund and the promise of a new  boutique-style racing plan – perhaps at a new venue.

The Race Horse Development Fund is one of many pots of money funded by the proceeds of casino gaming at the state’s three gaming locations. It is mandated as part of the state gaming legislation.

“Hopefully we can go to the Gaming Commission with the two pieces in place – our lease with Suffolk and the Legislation,” said Bill Lagorio, a trainer based in Revere. “For us, it’s coming down to D-Day (Kentucky Derby Day). We don’t want to still be in limbo and have 300 horses show up from Tampa. Trainers and breeders want some reassurance. They want to hear that it looks good and we have the legislation passed before they come up. Time is of the essence right now. If it all works out, we can be up by Belmont Day, June 6, and racing. That’s fine. We’ll have more turf racing in the best summer months. People have to know now because a majority of the horses coming to Suffolk Downs are in Tampa, Laurel or the farms.”

Lagorio said trainers like him don’t see the death of racing in Massachusetts in the wake of the casino loss at Suffolk Downs. In fact, through the Fund, he said they see a plan to stay at Suffolk Downs for two years until they can get enough money built up to find another location to build a boutique Thoroughbred track. With the Fund, and the better horses it will bring through larger purses, he said a real destination facility with live racing can be had in Massachusetts – such as has been done in Tampa.

“Our long-term plans are we’re looking for a site to build a race track,” he said. “We’re looking now. We’ll be utilizing our gaming funds and in 2017 have the surplus to build a new facility. We’re looking at a couple of sites now. It will be built right with amenities, flat-screen televisions and a grandstand that is manageable. You don’t build one with 200-foot ceilings that holds 50,000 people and costs $10,000 a day to heat. That’s all gone. This will be boutique with all the amenities.”

He said that, in fact, the HBPA bankrolled their lease with Suffolk Downs using money from the Fund that came via casino licensing fees last fall.

Lagorio said many in the racing industry can’t wait for the casinos to get operating and they are hoping that there are no delays in the opening of Everett and Springfield casinos – as every open month is a large chunk of money into the Fund.

Lagorio praised the gaming legislation for including the fund and said it will bring a better racing product to the Commonwealth if racing is allowed to continue.

“What we have here is safe and sound horses now,” he said. “The horses are not nags or rats. They’re a little lesser quality than you’ll find in New York or New Jersey, but through the Fund we can get something a lot better…If I’m buying a horse, I can spend $35,000 or $40,000 on a horse instead of $10,000 because I know I’ll get my money back due to the Fund. Through the Fund, racing was going to get better, horses were going to get better and we would have been on par with New Jersey or Maryland.”

None of those grandiose plans can take place, Lagorio said, unless racing continues this year.

“All the people who support racing locally will be out of business if we miss one year,” he said. “When it’s resurrected two years later, all the people from Florida, New Jersey and New York will migrate up and get all our money. The truth is we can’t survive without a year of racing because any interruption will hurt the locals – the breeders and all the farms…They would go out.”

Members of the HBPA and its president, Anthony Spadea, are more confident by the day that they will get their legislation and be able to continue racing at Suffolk for the time being.

However, die-hards like Lagorio who live and breath Suffolk Downs said that even though the plans are exciting, there is disappointment that things couldn’t have worked out at the historic track.

“We would like to know the long term plans for Suffolk Downs,” he said. “What are they? Do the people of Revere and East Boston want a huge MassPort parking lot? We’ll get out of there in two years, but we all know that it’s a shame it’s not going to be a racetrack. There were suitors. It didn’t have to come to this.”

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