Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 9, 2017

Requiem For A Racetrack

The date is July 10, 1935. Much of the country is still struggling to escape the viselike grip of the Great Depression. But on a 161-acre property straddling East Boston and Revere a new sports venue is opening. Built in just sixty-two days by 3,000 workmen happy to have jobs, Suffolk Downs racetrack is a product of the recent legalization of parimutuel betting by Massachusetts legislators. The grandstand and clubhouse are packed with more than 35,000 fans on this first day of racing. People have come from all around New England to take in the initial eight-race card. Twenty-two horses go to the post for the Commonwealth Stakes, the feature race of Opening Day, run at six furlongs on the new dirt oval. The winner is Boxthorn, a 3-year old who ran in the Kentucky Derby two months earlier. The first page of the history of Suffolk Downs is written.

Just less than a year has passed; now it is June 29, 1936. A little colt named Seabiscuit charges down the lane to claim victory in an allowance race at Suffolk Downs. Among those watching the race is trainer Tom Smith. Two years earlier Smith had been given control of the stable of a fellow Georgian, wealthy car dealer Charles S. Howard. So impressed is Smith by the performance of the diminutive horse that he persuades Howard to purchase Seabiscuit. After working a punishing racing schedule at Wheatley Stables, the horse thrives under Smith’s different approach to training. Howard, Smith, jockey Red Pollard and Seabiscuit achieve national fame as the horse wins consistently and becomes a symbol of hope to millions of fans still trying to turn their own lives around.

The calendar reads August 7, 1937. Seabiscuit has returned to Suffolk Downs to compete in the Massachusetts Handicap. In just its third year the race has become the highlight of Suffolk’s annual meet. In time, it will become a graded stakes race, one of the more significant races on each year’s American thoroughbred schedule. Future winners of the MassCap will include Triple Crown champion Whirlaway, Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge, and the legendary Cigar. But in 1937 the crowd of 40,000 has traveled to East Boston to see Seabiscuit, and with Pollard in the irons the horse fans have come to call “The Biscuit” does not disappoint. He gallops home in a stakes record time of 1:49.00. Seabiscuit’s share of the $70,000 purse is $51,780, the largest single prize to that point in his career.

The years move on, and time is not kind to the New England thoroughbred industry. Sister tracks in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and Salem, New Hampshire are shuttered. In Maine Scarborough Downs gives up on thoroughbreds and offers only harness racing. Suffolk Downs goes through multiple owners, and often teeters on the brink of closing. The track goes dark for two years in 1990 and 1991. Then new owners pour money into improvements and Suffolk reopens for racing on New Year’s Day, 1992 with a crowd of more than 15,000 on hand. But even as the MassCap is revived and the first day with more than a million dollars in purses is achieved, even as the aging grandstands play host to crowds of 20,000 or more once or twice each season, the steady downward spiral continues.

Simulcasting is introduced, giving bettors a chance to wager on races at tracks all over the country. On any given race day, more fans are glued to the banks of televisions on the ground floor of the old clubhouse than are watching the live racing out on the track. John Velazquez rides the Nick Zito trained Commentator to victory in the 2008 MassCap. There will not be another. Massachusetts approves casino gambling in 2011, and the vision of a shiny new gambling mecca adjacent to the track becomes the last best hope for racing at Suffolk Downs.

It is September 2014. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission awards the single license for a casino in the Boston area to Wynn Resorts. Steve Wynn’s plan is to build a high-rise hotel and casino on a former industrial site in Everett. The Suffolk Downs plan, which had already been revised when voters in East Boston rejected casino gambling, requiring the proposed gambling hall to be shifted to that portion of the site that sits in Revere, has lost. Track ownership immediately announces that live racing will cease on October 4th.

The date is July 8, 2017. It’s a steamy Saturday and once again cars are pulling into the parking lots at Suffolk Downs. Three summers after its last full season of racing, thanks mainly to the efforts of the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association, the track still hosts an annual meet, at least after a fashion. In 2015 there were all of three days of racing. Last year and this, and potentially again in 2018, the Suffolk Downs meet is six days spread over three weekends in July, August and September.

To interest fans in coming out to such a limited opportunity, the weekends are marketed as festivals featuring a variety of entertainments for children as well as a bevy of food trucks scattered across the broad concrete apron between the grandstand and the track. Thanks largely to a special state fund that dedicates a share of gambling revenues to support horse racing, each day’s racing will offer purses in excess of $400,000.

The announced attendance is 10,219, and for those who are familiar the old place looks like it always has. The simulcasting continues, its older crowd of hard luck gamblers still engrossed by the televisions showing races from Belmont Park to Monmouth, from Laurel to Woodbine, and beyond. On the ground floor beneath the grandstand bettors line up to place their wagers and cash in their winnings. Hanging from the high ceiling above them are banners with the names of MassCap winners.

Today’s feature is the 10th, the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash. The five-furlong spring on the inner turf track is for fillies and mares, with a guaranteed purse of $75,000. The race honors the fifth female jockey to score 1,000 wins, many of them here at Suffolk Downs, who succumbed to cancer in 2015 at the far too young age of fifty-one. D’Boldest, the longest shot in the field at 13-1 takes the early lead. Prohibitive favorite Portmagee challenges briefly on the far turn, but this won’t be her day. In the end she’ll be the last to finish. Instead it is the longshot who leads gate to wire. At the finish, her closest pursuer is Cali Thirty Seven, at 7-1 the horse with the second longest odds in the race. That’s horse racing.

There’s one more race on the card, but the crowd had already begun to thin, and now many more fans head for their cars and the drive home. The unlikely race day has been fun, but it has also had the air of a wake. Two months ago, Suffolk Downs was sold to a developer who has announced plans to turn the property into a mixed-use housing and shopping district. That project will take time, so these mini-meets may continue for another year or two; but for all the history that has been written on this ground, a very different future now irrevocably awaits.

As fans exit the clubhouse they pass a granite marker on which a bronze plaque recounts the long-ago exploits of Seabiscuit at Suffolk Downs. Perhaps when the property is redeveloped a space will be found for that marker, so that future generations can know that this East Boston property was not always about condominiums and shopping malls. But no one has promised that.

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