If there is a dark horse in New England’s crowded gambling industry, it would be thoroughbred racing.
Suffolk Downs, the region’s last thoroughbred track, has run a limited race schedule since it lost out on the Greater Boston casino license back in 2014. The races end completely in June so property owner HYM Investment Group can prep the 161-acre site on the East Boston-Revere line for development. As a result, only four race days are slated for 2019.
Don’t give up, horse fans. Track operator Sterling Suffolk Racecourse has a greener pasture in mind: the Great Barrington Fairgrounds. First, Suffolk needs help from state lawmakers to pull it off. Legislation will be submitted on Suffolk’s behalf by the end of next week that would enable it to run horses in the Berkshires while keeping simulcasting rights in Boston.
The idea was first floated last spring, after Suffolk reached an agreement for a long-term lease of the 57-acre fairgrounds. The original hope was to start racing in 2019, but it’s too late for that now. Suffolk’s new goal: to start with a handful of dates in 2020, and work up to between 24 and 40 race days within a few years.
Why Great Barrington? The fairgrounds last hosted live racing two decades ago. But the barns, grandstand, and track are still there. Building a new facility from scratch could cost $50 million-plus; refurbishing the existing track infrastructure, including extending the track itself, would be roughly one-fourth of that expense.
Suffolk chief operating officer Chip Tuttle envisions an August-October season, in part to overlap with some of the races held 90 minutes away in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. As many as 150 people eventually could work there — much less than Suffolk Downs in its heyday, but still a nice economic boost. Suffolk also wants to bring back other fair activities, and offer simulcasting on race days.
Horse racing might seem like a strange bet for Richard Fields and his Suffolk partners, Joe O’Donnell and Vornado Realty Trust. After all, they lost millions on the track while they patiently waited for that casino license decision. The loss to Wynn Resorts meant a near-certain shutdown. But the Legislature threw the track a lifeline in 2015, allowing simulcasting with just a minimum of one live-racing day in return.
Here’s what can make thoroughbred racing financially feasible: a state-managed fund for prizes, built by a tax on bets at existing casinos Plainridge Park and MGM Springfield. (More money will come once Wynn’s Encore casino finally opens.) Suffolk has benefited already, securing roughly $1 million for a weekend of racing.
Not everyone is sold. In November, Massachusetts Gaming Commission member Enrique Zuniga voted against giving Suffolk its meager race calendar for 2019, arguing that the money could be put to better use. He was outvoted. Maybe he might find a longer season in Great Barrington more convincing.
Suffolk faces other challenges. Competition for local gamblers’ dollars is getting fiercer — with MGM arriving in Springfield and Twin River expanding to Tiverton last summer, and Wynn’s Encore on its way. Plainridge still offers harness racing, and The Stronach Group has eyed a site in Lancaster for a thoroughbred track. Then there’s the big sports betting debate. State lawmakers will give it serious consideration after the US Supreme Court opened the gates last year. The fates of online sports books and Suffolk’s race plans could become intertwined.
For now, Great Barrington could represent thoroughbred racing’s best bet for a future in New England. This dark horse might still emerge a winner.Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.