For the employees of Suffolk Downs and horse racing enthusiasts, Opening Day is a rite of passage to warm-weather months that lie ahead.
The start of the live racing schedule, which begins at the track Saturday in conjunction with the running of the 140th Kentucky Derby, doubles as a welcoming return for owners and trainers who have spent the winter months in warmer states to beat the cruel New England weather.
Yet this year, the start of live racing also brings the chilling reality that this season could be the last. With the Greater Boston resort casino license hanging in the balance, there’s an air of uncertainty surrounding the future of the 79-year-old racetrack.
When the Massachusetts Gaming Commission decides to award the license to either Mohegan Sun and Revere, or Wynn Resorts and the city of Everett, there’s more at stake than just a casino.
At Suffolk Downs, hundreds of jobs are on the line for those who have made a living and a lifestyle working at the historic track.
“We relish [Opening Day] coming around because it’s the start of our live racing meet, but when you’ve been here for that many years and made a living here, when live racing comes, it’s not just a job, it’s your life,” said Michelle Jeffrey, who has worked at Suffolk since it reopened in 1992.
“It’s your passion and enjoyment.”
Jeffrey is the safety compliance officer and thoroughbred retirement coordinator at Suffolk, as well as the assistant photographer.
A graduate of Revere High, Jeffrey still lives in Revere. While she is able to make a living working at Suffolk, New England’s last active thoroughbred racing site, it also allows her to take care of her 73-year-old father, Frank, who has Parkinson’s disease.
“It’s not just making a living, it’s not having to leave and go out of state to make a living,” Jeffrey said. “My family is here. My dad recently was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, so to pack up and go to another racetrack is impossible. If I had to leave, I’d have to get out of the business.
“What people don’t realize is if you take all horses on the grounds and take one racehorse, it employs up to four people. You have over 300 horses on the [Suffolk] grounds. Now, you branch out to the farms. That horse has to eat. It needs a veterinarian and a blacksmith. The jobs are endless — it doesn’t stop with the track. For this industry in Massachusetts to end, it would be a sin.”
As the safety compliance officer, Jeffrey patrols the grounds at Suffolk Downs on her 25-year-old horse, Pirate.
She rides through the barns to greet horsemen and make sure they have the right equipment. If there’s an accident on the track, she rides out to make sure the jockey and horse are safe.
During Tuesday’s fire, a three-alarm blaze in the stable area that started in the track kitchen, Jeffrey helped move nearby horses to safety.
Like Jeffrey, Pirate is a mainstay at the track.
“We’ve tried to retire him several times, but he jumps out of his paddock,” Jeffrey said. “He loves his job and tells me what he wants to do. He’s in great health and many people love him.”
While Jeffrey has been a mainstay at the track for over 20 years, Kevin McCarthy, a 50-year-old Pembroke resident, has just begun to flourish as a trainer at Suffolk. McCarthy, who is one of 10 children and grew up in Marshfield near a local thoroughbred farm, said, “I’m the only one in my family that’s caught the bug.”
While he works full-time in the mortgage industry, he decided to pursue his passion and join the business. He got his trainers license in 2012 and founded the Jimikevin Racing Stable, which features six horses, four of which are currently stabled at Suffolk.
He won his first race in his first start with a horse named Perfect Joiski, who became a two-time New England champion turf horse.
Is Saturday’s Opening Day bittersweet?
“I’m an optimist and I’m hopeful because I think management is doing everything they can,” McCarthy said. “But if there was no horse racing in New England, I wouldn’t be able to participate.
“I do it because I like it and I love the horses. But I wouldn’t try to relocate and reinvent myself. I’d hate for it to be the last.”
As stated in Suffolk Downs’ live racing press release, the track has struggled to attract horses for the last several years, as daily purse levels have remained stagnant. The hope is that the casino will change that.
“The start of the live race meet here always brings with it a sense of optimism and renewal, although this year that is tempered with concern for our workforce and the future here,” Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle said in the release.
“Our plan is to invest in racing, create a better experience for customers and horsemen, bring back special events and return racing here to the major league stature this market deserves.
“We believe that Mohegan Sun has an approach for resort-style gaming here that is far better for the Commonwealth than its competitor’s and that Mohegan Sun’s success has the added advantage of preserving 800 jobs and a longstanding tradition here while enhancing the state’s agricultural resources and saving family farms and small businesses.”
But even amidst all the uncertainty, there’s still optimism, and nothing can spoil the start of the live racing season for Janelle Campbell, a 28-year-old jockey and Revere resident.
Campbell, who is from Amesbury, is the niece of Tammi Piermarini — the third-leading female jockey of all time with more than 2,100 victories.
In 2012, she began her career as an apprentice jockey and won her first race at Suffolk Downs in 2013 while riding Primal Humor.
“There’s no place like home,” said Campbell, who also races at other tracks. “[Opening Day] is like Christmas morning, we’re getting so excited and can’t wait.”