Negotiations to keep thoroughbred horse racing at Suffolk Downs have broken down, making it increasingly likely there will be no live racing there in 2015, a lawyer for a group of horse owners and trainers told the state Gaming Commission in a surprise appearance on Thursday.
But while live racing appears to be in serious jeopardy, a fight may be brewing over the lucrative rights to simulcasts of horse racing at the track with video feeds from other tracks.
Frank J. Frisoli Jr., an attorney for the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents about 900 local horse owners and trainers, told the commission that talks with the owners of Suffolk Downs to lease the facility and run races there in 2015 hit a major snag last month. The track owners, Frisoli said, told the horsemen they intended to try to salvage some revenue at the track in 2015 by simulcasting races if no deal were to be reached with the horsemen for live racing.
But if Suffolk Downs is allowed to simulcast without also operating live racing it would be a blow to the chances of live racing ever returning to the state, Frisoli said.
The track owners announced last September that they intended to allow the track -- first opened in the 1930s -- to go dark, following the decision of the state Gaming Commission to reject the owners’ application to operate a casino on the site. The coveted casino license instead was granted to a planned facility in the city of Everett.
State law requires that an operator of simulcast horse racing also operate live horse racing. Until now, Suffolks Downs has done both.
Now that Suffolk Downs is dropping horse racing, it is asking the Legislature for permission to simulcast alone. The Legislature has not taken up that request.
“The profits from simulcasting have to partially go back into horse racing for there to be any chance of surviving,” Frisoli told the commission.
The horsemen argue that they, not the track owners, should be allowed to run simulcasts and reap the profits if there is no live racing at Suffolk Downs, Frisoli said.
Commission members made no comment on Frisoli’s presentation.
Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs, said in an interview after the meeting that the owners are still open to leasing the track if the horsemen can come up with the money to cover expenses. But the horsemen are millions of dollars short of being able to do that, he said.
In the absence of a deal with horsemen, Suffolks Downs wants whatever revenue it can get, and be able to retain about 100 track employees, by operating simulcasts, he said.
Tuttle said he was surprised the horsemen went to the commission without informing him -- even though he was in touch by phone with the group hours before Frisoli made his presentation. He did not attend the meeting.
“I don’t know what they hoped to accomplish, but if they were trying to gain bargaining leverage it was counterproductive,” he said.
Frisoli said in a later interview he hoped going public would help bring Suffolk Downs back to negotiations.
After Suffolk Downs said it would close, the horse owners and trainers organization said they wanted to lease the facility to continue New England’s only thoroughbred racing. Last October, the Gaming Commission lent support to that plan by awarding a racing license to the organization on a “placeholder” basis while negotiations continued between the horsemen and the track owners.
George Carney, the owner of Raynham Park, a former dog-racing track, filed a similar placeholder application last fall for possible thoroughbred horse racing at the Brockton Fairgrounds in Brockton. Frisoli on Thursday told the commission the horsemen consider that 5/8-mile track to be too small. Suffolk Downs is a mile long.Sean P. Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.