The sport of kings is dead. Long live the sport of kings?
Suffolk Downs, the last of New England’s thoroughbred tracks, ended live races this summer after holding only a limited calendar in recent years. It sure seemed like the end of an era.
And now we have a third one, jockeying for position: The Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association has teamed up with a group led by John Grossi, a horse owner who recently sold the Latitude fitness club chain, to propose a $60 million project in Rowley.
The proponents — Grossi and other undisclosed investors using the name Rowley Group LLC — say they have an agreement to buy a roughly 280-acre property off Route 133 in the North Shore town. They plan to make their case to the Rowley Board of Selectmen for the first time Monday.
Grossi and his colleagues propose a one-mile dirt track and a ⅞ -mile turf track for thoroughbred races. Crucially, they want rights to simulcast and take bets for races at other tracks. But they show no interest in slot machines or other casino accoutrements that other track owners have sought.
So what gives? Isn’t horse racing dying?
Each developer has specific reasons for trying to buck the trend. But they also share a motivating factor: the Race Horse Development Fund, which the Massachusetts Gaming Commission controls.
There was more than $14 million in the pot as of August, with around $1.5 million arriving each month, from taxes at the state’s three casinos. By far the biggest contributor: the Plainridge Park Casino, the state’s sole harness track/slot machine parlor.
Most of this money was supposed to go to prizes in thoroughbred races. But with the industry in decline, owners of standardbred horses that run in harness races have lobbied for a big piece of the pie. That tug of war continued Wednesday, in front of a committee charged with setting the split between harness and thoroughbred purses. The decision: It’s slated to shift again, to 65-35, in favor of the standardbreds.
Each of the three thoroughbred projects need the Legislature’s help to get to the starting line. The race is on.
■ Rowley Group: This proposal can be traced back to 2014, when Suffolk Downs ended regular operations. The main horsemen’s group, the New England HPBA, wanted to continue with a much-abbreviated schedule. But a contingent that became the MassTHA argued it wasn’t enough to support the industry, and began to seek an alternative. The land search was a series of fits and starts, but proponents say they have a winner now. They hired a former House Ways and Means chief, Brian Dempsey, to lobby on their behalf. Among the things they want from the Legislature: minimum requirements of 60 days of racing per year and a mile-long track. They also want lawmakers to remove a restriction they say prevents a new thoroughbred track from opening within 50 miles of Suffolk Downs.
■ Notos Group: A group led by Quincy developer Thomas O’Connell is pursuing an ambitious, $300 million project on a 275-acre site in Wareham, with a racetrack as its hub. The project would include slot machines, a hotel, and a Cape League baseball field — not to mention a new highway ramp off Route 25. On Friday, Notos announced it had hired experts to set high safety standards, in part to address increasing nationwide concerns about horse injuries. To pull this off, O’Connell needs lawmakers to allow a slots parlor license, with its smaller required investment, in Southeastern Massachusetts, as an alternative to the full-scale casino once envisioned for the region. O’Connell argues the market won’t support another major casino.
■ Sterling Suffolk: Then there’s Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, the owners that oversaw Suffolk Downs, the track in East Boston and Revere now poised for redevelopment. Sterling Suffolk has lease rights for the Great Barrington Fairgrounds, a 55-acre property where horses ran as recently as two decades ago. This group wants permission to keep its simulcasting rights for Suffolk County and to run races in the Berkshires, in September and October. That isn’t likely to be enough to clear the 60-day minimum the Rowley group wants. Plus, the track is shorter than one mile. Sterling Suffolk’s chief operating officer, Chip Tuttle, is skeptical any full-fledged track operation could survive without slots revenue as a subsidy. He says his $15 million project could open as soon as fall 2020, sooner than the other two.
Betting on who will win this race could be fun. However, the future of a region’s industry is at stake, not just walking-around money. It’s hard to pick a favorite just yet, but one thing seems likely: Not everyone walks away a winner.