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Penn National turns to Plainridge racetrack

Jimmy Hardy and horse Native Speed rode at Plainridge Racecourse, which has won attention from a gaming firm.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Jimmy Hardy and horse Native Speed rode at Plainridge Racecourse, which has won attention from a gaming firm.

Spurned by Tewksbury voters, a Pennsylvania-based gambling company may reemerge in the state’s slots parlor sweepstakes at Plainridge Racecourse, a one-time favorite to win a slot machine license whose ownership team was recently ruled unsuitable to run a casino.

Representatives of Penn National Gaming have expressed interest in acquiring the struggling Plainville track and in reviving plans to expand it into a slot machine parlor, said Joseph Fernandes, Plainville town administrator.

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“The planets are beginning to align,” said Fernandes, who has not spoken to Penn officials, but confirmed that conversations have quietly taken place between the company and the track. “I’m measured in my optimism. It has been a pretty intense roller coaster.”

The owners of the state’s only active harness racetrack confirmed their interest in selling to Penn, which track officials see as the last and best hope of reviving the facility’s slots parlor plans and preserving harness racing in Massachusetts, said a person briefed on the talks. Without slots, it is unlikely the horse track will stay in business.

Penn officials were tightlipped Wednesday about the company’s plans, a day after voters at a Tewksbury town meeting rejected proposed zoning changes and crushed Penn’s proposal to build a slot parlor at the junction of Route 133 and Interstate 495.

“Penn National is going to step back and take some time to determine what, if any, options they want to consider in Massachusetts,” a Penn spokesman said Wednesday in a statement.

The Tewksbury project was Penn’s second try at winning a gambling license in Massachusetts. The company originally proposed an $800 million casino resort in downtown Springfield. That project died in April after Mayor Domenic Sarno chose a competing plan from MGM, concluding a citywide competition between the two gambling giants.

At the moment, there are just three competitors for the state’s sole slots parlor license: The Cordish Cos., which are planning a slots parlor in Leominster; an affiliate of Rush Street Gaming, which wants to build in Millbury; and Raynham Park, the simulcast betting parlor and former dog racing track in Raynham. All three applicants have passed their state background checks. Raynham voters endorsed the Raynham Park proposal in a referendum last week. Residents of Leominster and Millbury will vote Sept. 24.

Earlier this month, the gambling commission disqualified Plainridge’s ownership group from the slots competition, largely because of disclosure that former track president Gary T. Piontkowski took roughly $1.4 million, a little at a time over several years, from the struggling track’s money room.

Penn would seem well suited to take over Plainridge’s slots venture. Penn has experience running racetracks and racinos in other states, such as the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia and the Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course in Pennsylvania.

More importantly, Penn has already been cooperating with state investigators vetting applicants for casino licenses. These mandatory background checks can take many months, and there may not be enough time for some new company to swoop in, acquire the track, and complete the check in time to meet deadlines this fall set by the state gambling commission.

The background check on Penn is nearly done: the gambling commission is expected to vote in September on Penn’s fitness to hold a license. Despite the setback in Tewksbury, Penn has not asked the state to stop its background investigation, according to the gambling commission.

From Penn’s perspective, taking over Plainridge may be the only viable way to stay in the competition for the sole Massachusetts slot parlor license, again because of deadlines.

By Oct. 4, all slots parlor applicants must submit election results proving that their projects have won the endorsement of local voters in a referendum. State law requires at least a 60-day campaign before any casino referendum, so there is not enough time to start from scratch in a new community. The gambling commission has shown no enthusiasm for changing its deadlines.

The deadline is not a problem in Plainville, which already has a casino referendum scheduled for Sept. 10, a vote planned before the track’s current ownership failed the state background check. Plainville selectmen decided last week to maintain the vote, to give Plainridge a chance to quickly sell the track to new owners, said Fernandes.

The state gambling commission has not yet said if it would allow a new owner to take over the Plainridge venture, though the commission has a long record of supporting maximum competition for each of the licenses it controls.

If Penn passes on Plainridge, the company could still open a Massachusetts casino. In addition to the slots parlor license, the 2011 state casino law authorized three licenses for much larger resort casinos, no more than one in each of three regions of the state. The gambling commission will accept no new applications in the Greater Boston or Western Massachusetts regions, but as an existing applicant Penn could conceivably line up a site in one of those regions in time to make the Dec. 31 deadline to win a referendum.

Bidding for the Southeastern Massachusetts license remains open to any developer through September.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at Mark.Arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.
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