PLAINVILLE — When George Pratt was 6 years old, he started working in his father’s stables in Rochester, N.H., shoveling horse droppings.
“I didn’t have a choice!” said Pratt, now 62, as his white-bearded father, also George, roared with laughter at a picnic table in front of Plainridge Racecourse recently.
“You have to clean the stalls before you can drive the horse,” said the elder Pratt, 84, as he squinted at the track, watching horses and their drivers, pulled behind in two-wheeled buggies, warm up for the afternoon’s harness races.
The older Pratt has trained standardbreds in New England for close to a half-century. For him, as for hundreds of others who work at Plainridge, harness racing is a livelihood passed down as family tradition, and a sport that fosters camaraderie among the fiercest of competitors.
It is, he said, a “way of life.”
‘I saw this sport come in, and I’m going to see it go out the door.’
But it is a way of life that he fears is dying in Massachusetts, as horsemen struggle to salvage their business in the face of waning public interest and growing financial trouble.
Earlier this month, the sport’s fate grew more uncertain after casino regulators disqualified Plainridge, the state’s lone harness track, from competition for the state’s single slot machine parlor license. They attributed their decision to a lack of oversight that allowed a former track president to extract $1.4 million in small withdrawals from Plainville’s money room.
“I saw this sport come in, and I’m going to see it go out the door,” said the older George Pratt, who in 1950 quit his job as a mechanic and became a horse trainer right when the sport’s popularity began to skyrocket.
“This is the end of it here in Massachusetts. We’re done for,” he said.
Bringing slots to Plainridge, horsemen say, would have brought revenue to increase purses, which in turn would have brought better horses, more exciting races, and ultimately, more people to bet. Owners of the track are now pursuing a quick sale in a last-gasp attempt to keep the horses running and the prospect of a slot parlor alive. But it’s unclear whether they have enough time to pull off such a deal before an October deadline to submit slot parlor plans to the state.
“We’ve been losing money [at Plainridge] year after year,” said trainer Michael Perpall, 76, as he patted his horses in the quiet, brown-paneled Plainridge stables before races.
“The problem is, we’re competing with all the tracks around us that do have slots,” he said, citing venues in New York, Maine, and Delaware.
Perpall, president of the Harness Horseman’s Association of New England, recalled an era when harness racing brought so many spectators to New England tracks that you had to arrive an hour early to find a place to park.
“We were the only thing in town,” he said, remembering night races at Rockingham Park N.H., close to his old home. “If you wanted a dinner reservation, you had to make it a week in advance.”
Chuckling, he added, “Our only competition was bingo night.”
During the first few years after Plainridge’s 1999 opening, Perpall said, races in Plainville enjoyed the same popularity.
But on this recent afternoon, the track was a shadow of what it once was. A new parking garage — a $20 million structure Perpall said was built in preparation for the slots license bid — stood empty. An hour before races began, a lone watering truck circled the track, followed by a tractor that raked wet gravel in front of an empty grandstand. Only a handful of customers lingered inside, enjoying hot dogs, popcorn, and simulcast betting.
The decision to disqualify Plainridge from the slots competition could have dire consequences, Perpall warned. He figures 250 trainers and 75 grooms would lose their jobs if the track has to close, forcing them to move to tracks in other states.
And that doesn’t include the farmers, veterinarians, race judges, doping testers, and track personnel who won’t be able to move on, Perpall said.
“So many people are now uncertain of how to make a living, essentially for the wrongdoings of one individual. The ramifications are monumental,” said 70-year-old driver William Krikorian as he brought his panting horse, Michael the Barber, back to the stables after a daily workout.
The colt, Krikorian said, is named after his father, who was a cavalryman in World War I and whose love of horses spurred a family breeding business.
“We hope we can pay the bills . . . you can’t get food stamps for these horses,” Krikorian said glumly as he hung up his red and blue helmet.
“This has always been home. I know I can pack up and go somewhere, but do I want to?” said Jimmy Hardy in a nearby stall as he tended his horse Native Speed, a towering bay that neighed while enjoying a prerace grooming.
Hardy, a 25-year veteran driver, said he cannot imagine taking another job.
“I’ve got horses in my blood,” he said.
By 4 p.m., a crowd of 50 had filtered into the stands. Martha Bowen of Norfolk said she learned that Plainridge had been removed for the slots competition at the track.
“Usually, I come in here and see people excited, but it felt a little strange when I walked in today, like there was a pall over the place,” she said.
The stands were sparse, but the fans who came shouted and waved their programs as the first race began, brightly clad drivers at the reins.
At three-quarters of a mile, Hardy’s Native Speed pulled into the lead.
“I don’t know if he’s got enough gas,” said the younger Pratt, shaking his head.
“He might, he might,” his father said as the horses came thundering around the final bend of the track, kicking up clouds of dust at the mile finish.
Native Speed took second.
“Almost,” shouted Hardy with a smile and a shrug to the waving Pratts as he returned to the Plainridge stables.
“That’s why I came — to see that last turn,” said the younger Pratt. “To remember what it’s like.”