Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 18, 2014

At Suffolk Downs, The Final Call To Post Grows Near

It’s been nearly three years since Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed the Commonwealth’s expanded gaming legislation into law. Earlier this week the state Gaming Commission created by that act finally got around to awarding the single casino license for the greater Boston area. By a 3-1 vote on Tuesday the Commission awarded the lucrative license to developer Steve Wynn, whose plan envisions transforming the polluted site of a former chemical plant on the banks of the Mystic River in Everett into a gleaming $1.6 billion luxury gambling resort overlooking Boston and Somerville.

Wynn, whose career in the gaming industry began with ownership of the Frontier and Golden Nugget in Las Vegas in the late 1960s and has stretched through the famous Mirage and Bellagio to more recent development in Macau, promised the Commission and the citizens of Everett the world, as developers often do. In addition to 3,000 slot machines and 150 table games, the modern high-rise will include 500 hotel rooms, 94,000 square feet of retail space and 8 restaurants. Some 3,700 construction jobs will be needed to complete Wynn’s casino, which will employee nearly 4,400 permanent workers. All that will add more than a quarter billion dollars annually to state and local coffers, in addition to $75 million to be spent on local infrastructure and community enhancement. Within minutes of the Commission’s decision locals were literally dancing in the streets of Everett.

But every competition that crowns a winner necessarily must also identify one of more losers. In this case that role fell to the sole competing proposal for the Boston area license, the partnership between Mohegan Sun and the ownership of the Suffolk Downs race track. The impact of the loss was swift and predictable. Even while the celebration continued in downtown Everett, less than five miles away Suffolk Downs officials announced that the track’s current meet, scheduled to end later this month, would be its last. After eighty years of racing, the last thoroughbred track in New England will close.

When the current ownership bought a majority interest in the track in 2007 they made it clear that the continuation of racing hinged on expanded gaming on the sprawling site that spans the line between East Boston and Revere. Local legislators were in the forefront of the push for the 2011 casino legislation, and many pundits assumed that an eventual casino proposal from Suffolk Downs would go off as the heavy favorite in the race for the Boston area license.

Yet the actual history of the track’s proposal is filled with missteps. Suffolk originally partnered with Caesars Entertainment on a plan to build a $1 billion facility. But last October track management was forced to sever their ties to the Nevada based gaming corporation that’s even bigger than Wynn Resorts. The Gaming Commission signaled that Caesars was unlikely to meet rigorous financial stability standards and might also run afoul of ethics guidelines because of alleged ties to the Russian mafia. Mohegan Sun stepped in to take Caesars place. However the state’s gaming law allows for proposals only from communities who have supported the development of a casino through a referendum vote. Mohegan Sun had already seen its original plan for a casino in western Massachusetts shot down by a negative vote in the town of Palmer. Now the voters of the two communities in which Suffolk Downs sits delivered a split verdict. Voters in East Boston rejected the casino proposal while the citizens of Revere voted yes.

Racing against the clock as the deadline for proposals loomed, the track and the casino operator cobbled together a plan to situate the entire gaming operation on land in Revere. A second referendum vote reaffirmed that community’s support for the revised casino plan, but from the start of the Commission’s public review process it was apparent that Wynn’s bigger and richer plan in neighboring Everett had overtaken Suffolk Downs in the deep stretch. While as part of the casino proposal track management had committed to maintain racing for at least 15 years, they had also made it clear that a negative decision would mean the end of thoroughbred racing in New England.

It would be easy to describe the demise of Suffolk Downs as a mercy killing. The track, which has had numerous owners over its eight decade history, was closed for the first time after the 1989 season, and remained dark for two years. Racing resumed in 1992 after new owners spent millions on renovations. But as interest in horse racing faded and track after track around New England closed, the quality of racing at Suffolk Downs declined, along with attendance. In recent years the small crowds at the track have been there as much for the simulcasting of races from other venues all around the country as for the live action out on the 1-mile dirt and 7-furlong inner turf ovals.  Meanwhile the ownership has lost countless millions.

Yet when the final race is run later this month, when some lowly claiming horse crosses the finish line in last place, allowing an owner to forever proclaim that he truly had the last horse to run at Suffolk Downs, the history of the place will remain. Even in time when the big old grandstand succumbs to the wrecking ball and the entire property is redeveloped into some as-yet unknown use that will doubtless take advantage of the close proximity of Boston’s Logan Airport, the ghosts will still haunt the grounds.

It is the history of the crowd of 35,000 that packed the place on opening day in 1935, when the feature race was won by Boxthorn, an entrant in that year’s Kentucky Derby. They are the ghosts of the legendary Seabiscuit and trainer Tom Smith. The valiant little horse won an allowance race at Suffolk in 1936, the first time that Smith ever saw him run. The trainer convinced owner Charles Howard to purchase Seabiscuit, and a historic partnership began. It is the long history of the MassCap, the graded stakes Massachusetts Handicap, for years the highlight of Suffolk’s season. Seabiscuit returned to the track to win the third running of the MassCap in 1937. The ghosts of Whirlaway and Riva Ridge and the great Cigar followed him to the winner’s circle as the decades passed. It is all the history of a distant time. They are all ghosts from a forgotten age. Soon, history and ghosts will be all that remain of thoroughbred racing in New England.

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Responses

  1. Great piece!


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