PLAINVILLE — Rick Flanders sat backward in the customized Lincoln Continental and talked into a microphone to four drivers wearing multicolored silks and helmets as they guided their standardbreds around the banked oval track at Plainridge Racecourse.
“Post position order, gentlemen,” said the 61-year-old from Hampton, N.H.
As the starter at the only harness track still operating in Massachusetts, it is Flanders’ job to retract the mobile starting gate’s hinged wings once the car reaches 30 miles per hour, clearing the way for the horses and their drivers, who are riding aboard two-wheeled carts known as bikes.
As they reached the back straightaway, Flanders commanded the Lincoln’s driver to “Go!” The car accelerated, Flanders turned the lever to retract the gate’s wings, and the trotters were on their way.
This time, there was no money riding on the outcome, only the question of whether the horses would make the time cutoff — 2 minutes 3 seconds — to qualify for the racing season that opens Monday at the track alongside Interstate 495 and Route 1 in Plainville.
This season could be the last hurrah for the horsemen at Plainridge. Its owners have applied for the single Category 2 gambling license to be awarded by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, hoping to add 1,250 slot machines to the track and simulcasting operation that they say has operated in the red since opening in 1999.
Stakes are high for Plainridge, which not only posted a nonrefundable $400,000 application fee, as did its three competitors for the slots-only license, but also has built a $20 million parking garage and lined up permits to begin a $160 million expansion, based on obtaining the franchise from the state gaming agency.
Without the slot machines and the $200 million in revenue they are expected to generate yearly, Plainridge will close, said Alfred Ross, one of the track’s investors.
Ross, seated in an empty grandstand overlooking the qualifying races Tuesday, said the likelihood Plainridge would remain open without slots is “very, very remote.”
“You can’t just run live racing and support a track anymore,” said Ross, a South Dartmouth businessman who has had a hand in racing horses and dogs since 1956. “There are too many entities calling on the entertainment dollar. Very few tracks can do so. As far as harness tracks, I can’t say who if anyone is making it without slots.”
Change already is afoot at Plainridge, where longtime president Gary Piontkowski recently retired, citing health problems. His replacement, John Grogan, had been the track’s main consultant on expanded gaming.
At trackside, horsemen tried to focus on the qualifiers and the approaching opening day.
“We have to go one step at a time,” said trainer Mike Perpall. “We are doing everything we can to get slots. If that doesn’t happen, I don’t know what we can do.”
Plainridge is the last harness track in southern New England. Two tracks operate in Maine, with slot machines boosting the purses at Hollywood Casino Hotel and Raceway in Bangor and at Scarborough Downs, just south of Portland. Scarborough, like Plainridge, offers live harness racing and betting on races simulcast from other tracks nationwide.
The lack of casino and slot machine revenue to increase prize money puts the two racetracks in Massachusetts — Plainridge and the Suffolk Downs thoroughbred track in East Boston — at a disadvantage, said Dan Leary, director of marketing and communication for the United States Trotters Association.
It is no wonder, he said, that Suffolk is pursuing a casino license and Plainridge wants slots.
“States like Massachusetts, Texas, and Illinois that do not have slots have been losing horses for racing and breeding,” Leary said. “They can’t compete with states that have the supplemental money for purses from slots and casinos. It is not a level playing field.”
For example, New York’s Yonkers Raceway, which also houses Empire City Casino, has a nine-race card Monday with purses ranging from $10,000 to $18,000. The average purse at Plainridge last year was $2,985, according to Domenic Longobardi, director of community relations and marketing at Plainridge.
“Last year was the first time we dropped below $3,000,” said Longobardi, a former horse trainer.
The decline at Plainridge has been stark.
According to a state review of horse racing last summer, live betting dropped at Plainridge from $2.4 million in 2007 to $1.5 million in 2011; simulcast wagering dropped off from $57.9 million to $46.1 million; and off-track simulcast betting dropped from $10.9 million to $5.8 million.
At the same time, purses dropped off from $3.1 million to $2.5 million.
Last year, the combined handle, or the total amount of betting, at Plainridge was $45 million, track spokesman Bill Ryan said.
But gambling on harness racing nationally is up, according to Leary.
For the year ending April 8, $458 million was bet at the 38 US Trotting Association member tracks and 72 fairgrounds, up 6 percent from the same period a year earlier.
While the increased wagering cannot all be attributed to slot and casino money bolstering purses, Leary said, racetracks exist in a cycle of money following money.
Slot and casino revenues boost prize money at racetracks, luring more horses, leading to larger fields, better odds, and more betting.
Meanwhile, horsemen in Massachusetts say they are barely scraping by.
Perpall, president of the 250-member Harness Horsemen’s Association of New England, has cut what used to be a 20-horse stable down to eight.
Most of the grooms, trainers, drivers, and owners at Plainridge have part- or full-time jobs out of necessity, he said.
Standing outside the paddock where horses were being prepared for their qualifying runs last week, Perpall pointed out two drivers exiting the track.
“This one owns the nursery up the road,” he said. “That fellow ahead of him is a milkman. They do this because they love it.”
One of the few full-time horsemen at Plainridge is Jim Hardy, last year’s leading trainer and a driver.
Decked out in green-and-white silks with a matching helmet, the North Attleborough resident showed off his $6,000 racing bike, an aerodynamic cart made of aluminum with state-of-the-art bearings and disc wheels.
Hardy has a stable of 10 horses at Plainridge, and said he would like to add a few more once the season gets underway. He employs a groom, Mike Tracey, and assistant trainer, Jolene Andrews, who also drives as a member of the New England Amateur Harness Drivers Club.
Hardy has raced at Plainridge since the track opened.
“It’s been a struggle,” he said. “I have a lot of good owners behind me. They love the horses. They love coming down and watching them race. I keep looking down at the light at the end of the tunnel. I hope we can get there. If not? Then we have to pack up and move. Get out of the business.”
With that, Hardy left the paddock with 11-year-old Hurricane Emily hitched to a wood-and-metal training bike that looked more 19th century than 21st, trying to pace another mile fast enough to qualify for another racing season, one that he hopes will not be their last at Plainridge.
Opening day’s first post time is 1 p.m.