Developer Richard Fields likes to explain his quixotic quest for a thoroughbred racetrack in Massachusetts with sailing terms, not equestrian ones: You need to keep tacking to the left, and then to the right, to catch the wind.
Fields knows a thing or two about zigzagging.
The self-described horse enthusiast poured millions into Suffolk Downs — New England’s last thoroughbred horse track — only to watch its future evaporate when state gaming regulators in 2014 awarded the sole Greater Boston casino license to rival Wynn Resorts. As racing ended at Suffolk Downs in 2019, Fields and his Suffolk Downs partners set their sights on the other side of the state, in Great Barrington, but ran into local resistance. Then Fields teamed up with Kingsbury health clubs founder Armand Janjigian to advance a track proposal in Sturbridge. No dice: Town meeting voters turned that one down last year.
Might Fields be finally rounding to the finish line? He sure thinks so, now that he has found a community he believes is ready to embrace his dream.
He has teamed up with Robin Kalaidjian, a horse breeder who is married to Janjigian, to build a mile-long turf track in Hardwick, a farming town in Central Massachusetts about 25 miles west of Worcester. At a joint planning board and selectmen meeting last week, the group presented its vision to establish the Commonwealth Equine and Agricultural Center at the 360-acre Great Meadowbrook Farm, a former dairy farm that’s still used for cultivating hay. If all goes according to plan, the sounds of thundering hooves might be heard in these quiet fields off Upper Church Street as soon as next September.
It would be a tribute to Fields’s tenacity and willpower. It would also be a tribute to his efforts to make sports betting legal in Massachusetts. Fields knows full well that a horse track isn’t viable without additional revenue from gambling. For Fields, this would come from sports betting at a kiosk on race days and year-round via a mobile app.
To try and make that happen, Fields has emerged as one of the state’s biggest lobbying forces on Beacon Hill during the past year. His Commonwealth Racing LLC spent $180,000 in Massachusetts in the first six months of 2022, according to newly released figures from Secretary of State William Galvin’s office. That tied Fields with Eversource Energy in fourth place in corporate lobbying spending, behind major health care employers Mass General Brigham, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and Beth Israel Lahey Health. It’s unusual to see a small outfit such as Commonwealth Racing up so high in these rankings, but it underscores how important this dream is for Fields.
Commonwealth Racing first showed up as one of the state’s top lobbying spenders during the second half of 2021, after Fields hired former House Ways and Means chairman Brian Dempsey’s firm, Dempsey Associates. Fields also has three other well-connected firms on retainer: Smith, Costello & Crawford; Charles Stefanini Consulting, and Finneran Global Strategies.
The main goal: to get sports betting passed into law. On that front, in the final hours of the Legislature’s regular formal sessions this summer, the House and Senate reached a deal. It was one of the last major bills to be sent to Governor Charlie Baker for his signature.
The new law requires licenses to be made available to operators of live horse races. The last such business in Massachusetts is Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville, a track that features harness races with standardbreds pulling two-wheeled carts. Former track operators with simulcasting licenses — the Suffolk Downs partnership, of which Fields is still a member, and Raynham Park, owned by the Carney family ― also can get brick-and-mortar betting licenses, as can the state’s two resort casinos, MGM Springfield and Wynn’s Encore Boston Harbor.
Sports betting might bring several million dollars a year to the proposed horse track in Hardwick. Helpful, yes. But not a giant windfall, either.
There’s another subsidy that Fields and his allies are eyeing: the state’s racehorse development fund, which is backed by a sliver of casino taxes set aside to help support the horse industry when the Legislature legalized casinos in 2011. Most of this money is to be used for race prizes. With no live racing, the pot for thoroughbreds has swollen to nearly $22 million.
Fields said he’s close to reaching a purchase-and-sale-agreement with the owners of the farm in Hardwick. There are other hurdles to clear, such as planning board approval and a race-meet license from the state Gaming Commission.
To win over residents, Fields and his team pledged to build an “agritourism destination” that honors the town’s farming heritage. No more than 20 race festival days would be held each year, and even fewer would be held initially. On-site gambling would only take place during race meets, at temporary kiosks. Eventually, Fields and Kalaidjian hope to operate a thoroughbred breeding center and retirement home as well as a farm-to-table restaurant and a bed-and-breakfast inn. These businesses would create 25 to 50 permanent jobs and at least $500,000 in new annual taxes for Hardwick — an 8 percent increase to the 3,000-person town’s current revenue.
Can they pull it off? Paul Umbrello, executive director of the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, is banking on it. He jokes that he slept like a baby after the meeting with town officials last week, because he saw little to no opposition this time. These races will support horse farms, which in turn support hay farms, which together, he said, help preserve the open space and rural character of many New England towns. He doesn’t have any data about how many farms the region has lost to development in recent years. But from his vantage point on the board of the Mass. Thoroughbred Breeders Association, he can track these numbers: Membership is down to fewer than 50, roughly a third of what it was just three years ago.
It was Umbrello who clued Fields into the availability of Great Meadowbrook Farm. Fields said he visited last year and fell in love with the site, and the town.
No one said chasing the wind would be easy. But with this property in Hardwick, Fields is betting all that zigzagging will prove to be worthwhile in the end.