Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 30, 2019

Death Of A Racetrack

The end came quietly at the old East Boston oval, reminiscent of nothing so much as a frail and desperately ill elderly person, at last resigned to and accepting of their mortality, calmly slipping away. Just over a week shy of the eighty-fourth anniversary of the track’s opening, the last thoroughbred race was run at Suffolk Downs on Sunday. But for a disqualification resulting from a stewards’ inquiry that took down the apparent winner of the fifth race, the final day of racing was lacking in drama; just a ten-race card of modest purses and equally middling horses, run after a pair of exhibition events limited to horses bred in Massachusetts.

Perhaps in the end, the old track had used up its full share of drama and had none left for what the day’s program billed as “The Great Sendoff.” For in the course of more than eight decades of horse racing, New England’s last surviving thoroughbred track was the scene of many exciting and memorable events, beginning on its very first day.

In the summer of 1935, most of the country was still mired in the Great Depression. But on July 10th of that year, a mere sixty-two days after the start of construction, Suffolk Downs opens for business. Fans flock from across New England to the 161-acre property straddling East Boston and Revere. More than 35,000 cram into the clubhouse and grandstand to witness the initial eight-race card while trying their luck at the betting windows. The feature event is the six-furlong Commonwealth Stakes, with twenty-two horses going to the post. A 3-year old named Boxthorn, who two months earlier had raced in the Kentucky Derby, is first under the wire.

By 1937 the premier race of each year’s meet at Suffolk Downs is the Massachusetts Handicap. Run at distances ranging from a mile and an eighth to a mile and a half over its history, that year’s third edition of the Mass Cap brings the horse that all of America has fallen in love with, Seabiscuit, back to East Boston. One year earlier the diminutive colt had come charging down the lane to win an allowance race at Suffolk Downs. In the crowd that day was trainer Tom Smith, who was so impressed by Seabiscuit that he convinced owner Charles S. Howard to purchase the horse. Owner, trainer, jockey Red Pollard and of course Seabiscuit would go on to write an entire chapter in the story of American thoroughbred racing.

A few pages of that story are devoted to the 1937 Mass Cap, where on an August afternoon Seabiscuit does not disappoint the more than 40,000 on hand, most of whom have come for the express purpose of watching “The Biscuit” race. He gallops home in front and sets a stakes record of 1:49:00 in the process. Of the $70,000 purse, $51,780 goes to the winner, Seabiscuit’s largest single prize to that point in his career.

The Massachusetts Handicap eventually achieved recognition as one of the important summer races in the country. Over the decades its winners included Triple Crown champion Whirlaway, Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge, and, twice, the legendary Cigar.

The history of the Mass Cap is, not surprisingly, a reflection of the story of its host track. Suffolk Downs went through multiple owners from the 1960s on, and through much of the next two decades, as the track started to decline, each season’s big race featured less impressive fields. At the end of 1989 the track closed for the first time, losing two seasons of racing before reopening under new ownership in 1992. The Mass Cap wasn’t run again until 1995, although a major marketing effort brought first Cigar and then Skip Away to East Boston for the event. Still the downward cycle of horse racing continued, with other tracks in the region closing and attendance at Suffolk Downs steadily diminishing. In just its third running in six years, horses went to the post for the last Massachusetts Handicap in 2008.

A flicker of hope for the track was sparked by the state’s approval of casino gambling in 2011. But three years later the sole casino license for greater Boston was awarded to Wynn Resorts for a project to be built in nearby Everett. The proposal from the management of Suffolk Downs, who had partnered first with Caesars Entertainment and then with Mohegan Sun, was cast aside, and the fate of the track was clear to one and all. Regular racing ended shortly thereafter.

After three years of offering only simulcast wagering from tracks around the rest of the country, an extremely modest attempt at live racing was begun in 2015. For a handful of days each summer, sometimes as few as three and never more than six, spread over multiple weekends, Suffolk Downs attempted to recreate a bit of its past glory. But now new owners are ready to move forward with plans to raze the clubhouse and grandstand to begin development of a massive mixed-use housing and commercial project.

So on Sunday the fans come out for one last time, in numbers strong enough to evoke thoughts of what might have been, if only such attendance had always been the norm. The two exhibitions are run, followed by the ten-race betting card. The biggest purse of the day is $40,000, for race number seven. Princess Victoria, a five-year old filly, goes off as the second favorite and hangs on in the stretch against a hard charging Ryoan to claim the day’s big prize, if it can be called that.

At last the call to the post for the final race comes, and eight maidens – horses that have never won – are sent off around the dirt mile. At the end the owners of Catauga County can say that their horse is winless no more. But perhaps the spotlight should be on the longshot Colonial Front, who trails the pack and is the final entrant to cross the finish line, literally the last horse to race at Suffolk Downs. The wrecking ball is waiting. The old East Boston oval has gone dark.

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