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Against most odds: Plotting an unlikely comeback for horse racing

Businessman Armand Janjigian knows his dream of thoroughbred horse racing in Sturbridge is a long shot, but he’s all in.

Armand Janjigian, founder of the Kingsbury health clubs, has acquired land in Sturbridge to bring back thoroughbred racing. Above, horses at the Black Rushin Farm in Medfield.
Armand Janjigian, founder of the Kingsbury health clubs, has acquired land in Sturbridge to bring back thoroughbred racing. Above, horses at the Black Rushin Farm in Medfield.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Longtime race horse owner Armand Janjigian knows all about calculating the odds, but he still wants to rescue the state’s thoroughbred racing industry, even if it’s a long shot.

The business consultant and owner of the Kingsbury health clubs in Medfield and Kingston just turned 86. But he’s not ready to ride into the sunset.

Instead, he is plotting an unlikely comeback for thoroughbreds. Janjigian is piecing together more than 300 acres near Interstate 84 in Sturbridge to build a new racetrack. He’s lining up investors for the $25 million-plus project. And he is working with town officials to rewrite the zoning rules to allow racing, and the gambling that would go along with it.

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He also might need the state Legislature to cooperate, by finally making sports betting legal.

The future of dozens of farms could be at stake. So could the fate of a sport that was on the wane long before Suffolk Downs, New England’s last thoroughbred track, hosted its final race in 2019. The hope is that Janjigian’s Sturbridge Equine & Agricultural Center would eventually support nearly 1,000 jobs, at the track and at far-flung farms and training facilities.

“I want to help horse farms,” Janjigian said. “That’s what this is all about. … I think we could run a very nice facility, almost like Saratoga, which is what I would use as a model.”

Also up for grabs: at least $18 million in a racehorse development fund for thoroughbred prizes, generated by a tax on casino betting. It’s a growing pile of gold that could remain untouched without any thoroughbred races to use the money.

Others have unsuccessfully tried to revive thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts. (Standardbreds still race, with two-wheeled carts in tow, at the Plainridge track in Plainville.) But Janjigian said his effort will be different. For one thing, he is a horseman himself ― with as many as a dozen horses at his Medfield farm and several more racing out of state ― so he understands what horse owners need. The Sturbridge project, he said, would be predominantly agricultural in nature: A one-mile synthetic track would be its centerpiece, with a ⅞-mile turf track inside the oval. There would also be space devoted to horses whose racing careers are over.

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Janjigian has teamed up with Richard Fields, a developer and longtime equestrian enthusiast who invested in Suffolk Downs in 2006 and propped it up for years with the hopes it would win a casino license. When Wynn Resorts edged out the Suffolk ownership in 2014 for the Greater Boston casino license, the track was doomed. It has hosted only sporadic, low-key meets since, and is slated for a major redevelopment project.

Fields is betting on a different fate this time around, by investing in Janjigian’s Sturbridge plans. He is driving around the state to build support among horse owners, and developing a local supply chain for the hay that the track will need. (Fields remains a partner in the Suffolk Downs group, which still runs an off-track betting facility in East Boston.)

The Sturbridge project doesn’t need a casino license, Fields said. What it probably does need is sports betting, something that is illegal in Massachusetts. The House of Representatives has backed a bill allowing sports wagers, including at a racetrack, but it’s subject to negotiations with the Senate over a broader economic development package. One report, from Spectrum Gaming Group, shows that sports betting in Sturbridge could provide more than $2 million a year in subsidies for the track.

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“I believe in Armand’s vision,” Fields said. “All the stuff we began at Suffolk Downs, we could now finalize with Armand. But you can’t do it without some form of assistance.”

Janjigian also needs the community’s support. Town administrator Jeff Bridges said Sturbridge officials are working with him on a zoning bylaw that would allow racing. That bylaw would be submitted for Town Meeting approval, but the vote probably won’t happen until next June. The new zoning would be structured to allow for ancillary uses, such as food sales, events, and sports betting. In addition to the new zoning and Massachusetts Gaming Commission approval, the Board of Selectmen also needs to approve the racetrack location.

Precise numbers for the farms in Massachusetts that could benefit are hard to come by. One report from 2013, prepared for Suffolk’s owners, showed 62 thoroughbred breeding farms and 71 other farms affiliated with thoroughbreds, spread over about 6,650 acres. Inevitably, some have closed or switched to other work, as interest in racing waned.

Arlene Brown, secretary of the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association, is among those farm owners who still hold out hope. She runs the 26-acre Briar Hill horse farm in Rehoboth, which has been in her late husband’s family since the 1800s.

“I would hate to be the one who loses it,” Brown said. “If it doesn’t look like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I can’t keep it going.”

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But there are skeptics, too. Other thoroughbred racing efforts have come and gone, and Suffolk Downs lost money for years. For some in the industry, it’s hard to imagine how racing could survive without casino revenue.

Ray Paulick, publisher of the influential Paulick Report website that tracks the industry, said he’s not sure sports-betting dollars would be enough to offset the steep expenses of a racetrack.

“There’s just not the appetite for horse racing that there used to be, because there are so many other [gambling] options,” Paulick said. “I don’t know what kind of revenue you get from sports betting. I never heard of anybody else saying, ‘Let’s build a racetrack if we get sports betting.’ ”

Janjigian remains undeterred. He says he’s too old to indulge in horse riding anymore. He’s not too old, though, to take on this challenge.

“Do I know all the answers? No. Is it a done deal? No,” Janjigian said. “But you know what? I’m pretty far along right now. I think there is a good chance this is going to happen. It’s more positive-looking than I would have imagined. I’m going to see this through.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.