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Court’s approval of casino vote a blow to Plainville track

Angelo Cambria  of Walpole made a bet at the Plainridge Racecourse earlier this year.

Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe/File

Angelo Cambria of Walpole made a bet at the Plainridge Racecourse earlier this year.

PLAINVILLE — The slot parlor project here was intended to save the state’s last harness racing track, bringing crucial money to a complex that was on the verge of shutting down.

But the complex could be at risk after Massachusetts’ highest court announced today that the November ballot will allow for a vote on the repeal of the state casino law.

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The Supreme Judicial Court decision has set the stage for a heated referendum campaign, but in the meantime, construction here will continue as planned.

Backhoes continued to plow the earth today at Plainridge Racecourse, where Penn National Gaming Inc. secured the state’s sole slot parlor license in February.

Steve O’Toole, general manager of Plainridge, said the complex, which has 140 full- and part-time employees, is again in jeopardy.

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“We’ve been over a lot of hurdles leading up to this point, and as far as I’m concerned, this is one more hurdle that we have to deal with,” he said.

He said Massachusetts voters are “savvy enough to weigh the benefits for the state, the thousands of jobs, and millions in revenue, and billions that we would lose to Connecticut and Rhode Island.”

Plainville residents, who were supportive of the slots proposal, will rally around Plainridge, O’Toole said.

Before Penn National secured its license, shutting down Plainridge was “pretty much inevitable,” O’Toole said.

“We knew this was a possibility. Obviously, we’re disappointed in it,” he said of the court’s decision to put the repeal on the ballot.

The racetrack was sleepy today, empty but for groundskeepers smoothing the gravel. Horses race three days per week.

Inside the large main building, a few dozen bettors watched horses race on small televisions, marking bets on paper.

Patrick Pelosi spends several days a week here, making small bets. Without the slots, he said, the complex will be “dead as a doornail.”

With them, he said, would come jobs and revenue.

“People could go out for a night and enjoy themselves. People wouldn’t have to drive two, two and a half hours to Connecticut,” said Pelosi, 39. “If other states can have them, why can’t we?”

Also betting Tuesday was Joe Lucas, 54, who said the loss of the slots at Plainridge would be devastating, especially with construction underway.

“They would just close the doors here,” he said.

He said other horse tracks around the country have successfully integrated with casinos, increasing purse prices exponentially. And he said the revenue would boost many retailers in town, from hotels to restaurants to outlet shops.

O’Toole said expanded gaming programs in Pennsylvania and New York have been successful, boosting purse prices to $8,000 to $10,000. Plainridge’s average purse is $3,500, and with the slots, it could reach those higher levels, O’Toole said.

“It’s a staggering amount of money, of revenue, of jobs for the state,” he said. “Other states have embraced expanded gaming, and those programs have flourished.”

Penn National has spent $65 million so far for the purchase of the land and facility at Plainridge and $20 million on construction, according to a company spokesman.

Footings are in place, O’Toole said, and steel should start going in early next week.

“Our fight to protect jobs and preserve this economic development opportunity for Massachusetts begins today,” said Eric Schippers, the senior vice president of public affairs and government relations at Penn National, in a statement. He said the company continues to anticipate a June 2015 opening.

Losing the slots would mean the certain death of harness racing in the state, said Billy Abdelnour, president of the New England Amateur Harness Drivers Club.

“There’s an awful lot at stake right now, and I don’t understand why,” he said. “We went through the Legislature, the governor, and the gaming commission... But all that is secondary. What about the people?”

He said hundreds of jobs would be lost with the crumbling of the horse-racing industry in Plainville.

“As far as horse racing goes, this is it. This was do or die from the beginning,” he said. “Two hundred and twenty years of harness racing in the state would go by the wayside.”

When Penn National announced its project, he said, “it was like being given a transfusion.”

“Before that, people were looking at each other like it was the Last Supper,” Abdelnour said. “We rose from the dead.”

The complex cannot survive without the slot revenue, he said, meaning “hundreds upon hundreds will be affected,” from horsemen to the people who supply feed for the animals. About 200 horses are stabled at the complex.

“This is a major shock,” Abdelnour said. “It means everything to us.”

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