The sense of loss among racing fans at Suffolk Downs, and the hardships facing its employees, are real. After 79 years, the track announced it would close later this year in the wake of the state gaming commission’s decision Tuesday not to award a casino license to the proposal there. The 160-acre parcel itself, which straddles the East Boston-Revere line and abuts two T stations, probably has a bright future; rumors are already flying about who might buy the land. But that’s little solace to Suffolk Downs employees and vendors, some of whom have spent decades working at the storied racetrack. The gaming commission has an important role to play in easing the transition for these workers.
The track’s COO, Chip Tuttle, lashed out at the commission, blaming it for the closure. But the real culprit has been a long-term decline in the popularity of horse racing since its Depression heyday. The track hasn’t been profitable since 2006; other thoroughbred tracks across the United States have struggled to survive, too. Rather than reinvent their business to attract new customers, though, many tracks, including Suffolk Downs, have implored the government for a rescue, in the form of a casino license.
Racetracks don’t have any more of a right to a bailout than any other struggling business, though, and a majority of the gaming commission concluded that a rival plan in Everett was better overall for the state. But there are still ways the panel can and should help the 176 full- and part-time employees who stand to lose their jobs. The commission’s main task will be holding Wynn Resorts, the successful casino applicant, to its promise to give preference in hiring to former Suffolk Downs employees once its Everett facility opens. Wynn’s training and recruitment plan for these workers will go before the commission for its approval — and commissioners should be demanding. Meanwhile, many breeders and owners who now race at Suffolk Downs will be able to develop relationships with tracks in surrounding states, and the commission should assist them if possible.
Horse racing still has devoted fans, but not nearly enough to sustain businesses like Suffolk Downs, and the track was bound to close sooner or later. Still, devising a plan to soften the blow should be the first priority of the commission at its next meeting.