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Chesto Means Business

Race to the finish, and maybe a new start

Suffolk Downs has hosted horse racing for 84 years. As the track shuts down on Sunday, plans are afoot to possibly add thoroughbred racing at Great Barrington Fairgrounds.
Suffolk Downs has hosted horse racing for 84 years. As the track shuts down on Sunday, plans are afoot to possibly add thoroughbred racing at Great Barrington Fairgrounds.Globe Staff/File

It will be the end of an era as the last horse races wrap up this weekend at Suffolk Downs after 84 years. But maybe a new one can begin — on the other side of the state.

Hours after the dust settles on the home stretch one final time on Sunday, Chip Tuttle will head to the State House and make the case for thoroughbred racing’s long-term survival in Massachusetts. Sterling Suffolk Racecourse needs the Legislature’s help to pull off this ambitious plan. Tuttle, the firm’s chief operating officer, will speak at a public hearing on Monday in support of a bill that would allow the company to start races next year in Great Barrington, while retaining its simulcasting rights here in Boston.

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For it to succeed, subsidies could be helpful. The bill would broaden the state’s race horse development fund, fed by slices of tax revenue from the three Massachusetts casinos, to allow the money to be used for capital purposes. About $13 million, primarily for race purses, sits in the pot today; Suffolk Downs had been allocated $3.8 million for this year’s races.

Sterling Suffolk also needs some degree of certainty before its owners commit to the $10 million to $15 million necessary to get the long-shuttered Great Barrington Fairgrounds track, barns, and grandstand ready again for prime time. The Legislature decides on an annual basis whether to renew simulcasting rights, often spurring last-minute deal-making on Beacon Hill. (Next deadline: July 31.) This dance might be fun for lobbyists and lawmakers. But it’s not the sort of approach that inspires bankers to lend money or business owners to invest, even ones with deep pockets.

These owners never wanted to be in this position in the first place. The Sterling Suffolk team of Joe O’Donnell, Richard Fields, and the New York firm Vornado Realty Trust put their chips down on the state’s Great Casino Race. First, they partnered with Caesars to build a casino at Suffolk Downs, one that would ensure horse racing endured there. Then, the partner was Mohegan Sun.

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The smart money, at least initially, was on Sterling Suffolk, not a brash interloper from Las Vegas. But casino mogul Steve Wynn promised to build a far more lavish gambling palace, just over the line in Everett. The state gaming commission, wowed by Wynn, handed the sole Greater Boston casino license to his company in 2014.

Five years later, the consequences of that commission vote have fully materialized. Wynn Resorts (sans Steve) finally opened its $2.6 billion casino and hotel this week, while Suffolk Downs prepares for its last racing days this weekend.

Suffolk Downs had already pared back its race calendar after losing the casino contest, with only six race days scheduled this year. The barns now need to come down to make way for developer HYM Investment Group’s vision of a massive new neighborhood at the 161-acre property. Simulcasting, however, would continue in the Suffolk Downs clubhouse this year and next, keeping the betting parlor’s nearly 90 workers employed for a little longer, at least.

Tuttle would like a new place within HYM’s development that would accommodate simulcasting and sports betting, or possibly at the former Wonderland track property, still owned by Sterling Suffolk, nearly two miles up the road.

But Tuttle also has his eyes on the Berkshires. Sterling Suffolk has signed a lease agreement for the 57-acre fair site in Great Barrington, with the hopes that the Legislature might approve the company’s concept this year, potentially as part of a broader sports-betting package. Live racing could start there in fall 2020 — as long as the Legislature goes along.

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A long shot, or an easy gamble? It’s hard to handicap that one today.

But Senator Eric Lesser, cochairman of the economic development committee in charge of gambling bills, sounds intrigued. The Great Barrington racing business wouldn’t be anywhere near as big as Suffolk Downs in its heyday, but it could still employ about 200 people during the racing season. Lesser, a Democrat from Longmeadow, has made supporting economic development in the western part of the state a big priority. A new track could help.

Plus, it could help preserve another important aspect of rural Massachusetts: the horse farms that support the thoroughbred industry. (After this weekend, the only live races in Massachusetts will be harness races, at the Plainridge casino in Plainville.)

Tuttle wants the events this weekend to take on the air of a celebration, not a funeral. That’s understandable. The industry has had years to prepare for thoroughbred racing’s demise. But this long race might not be over yet.


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