PLAINVILLE — The air was thick with excitement and the smell of manure at Plainridge Racecourse Tuesday. In the barns, trainers were jolly and hopeful at the start of another season. Wednesday would be the best opening day this place had seen in a very long time.
Who’d have thunk it?
Just last summer, they faced pretty dim prospects. The bottom had been falling out of the industry for years, as bettors abandoned horses for lottery tickets, Keno, and out-of-state casinos. As the action ebbed, prizes dwindled too, which meant top horses raced elsewhere, which in turn made Plainridge even less of a draw.
Their only hope: a state license to operate a slots parlor at the track. That would boost purses and breathe life back into the dying industry, not just at the track but at the horse farms and the feed companies whose fortunes are tied to it. All they had to do was hang on until luck — and the Gaming Commission — smiled upon them. But it all fell apart last summer, when it was discovered that track president Gary Piontkowski had taken more than $1 million from the money room, and the track’s then-owners were banned from competing for the slots license.
“That was our darkest hour,” said trainer Billy Abdelnour, a former elementary school teacher. “That was going to be the doom of harness racing.”
Then came the miracles, trotting home one after the other like a couple of long-shot nags at the Hambletonian: Penn National Gaming swooped in to rescue the operation. And in February, the Gaming Commission awarded Plainridge a slots license. The fact that the horsemen were still in the picture helped tip the balance their way.
“When we got it, we jumped for joy,” said Jimmy Hardy, who owns, trains, and races at Plainridge. “We’ve got a lot to look forward to.”
Things that seemed so very unlikely here six months ago are happening, and fast. The foundation for the gleaming new racino will be started Feb. 22. Soon, the worn carpet and workaday concession stands will be replaced by a glitzy new entertainment complex. Trainers are talking about upgrading their horses to compete for bigger purses. Hardy says old colleagues who left the industry years ago are “starting to kick the tires again.”
It seems a shame that the route to happiness for Hardy and the others goes right through the most predatory corner of the gambling industry, the slot machines that are gaming’s crack cocaine. But standing among the horses on a nice spring morning, it’s hard not to feel happy for the trainers, even if you hate slots as much as I do.
Of course, as with any odds-defying victory, the potential of defeat lurks close by. The voters of Massachusetts could end Plainridge’s streak, and in the most painful possible way, repealing the casino law and taking away the winnings just as the track starts to enjoy them.
The casino repeal movement has beaten its own long odds. Born just after the state’s gung ho gaming law was signed in 2011, it seemed very unlikely to succeed. But then some amazing things happened. Town after town voted down casino proposals as the prospect of gambling in their backyards became real. East Boston voted against a casino at Suffolk Downs and was ignored as developers simply moved the project so that it was technically all in Revere. Some of the players involved in a proposal for a Wynn casino in Everett get ickier by the day. Those who want to repeal the gaming law say the tide has turned.
In July, the state’s highest court will rule on whether the question can go before voters in November. If the court says yes and voters repeal the law, Plainridge will come crashing down. That blunts some of the joy at the track.
“I can’t believe they’d rescind that,” Abdelnour said. “I can’t believe the Legislature would let that happen.”
Maybe not. But in this game, you can’t bet on anything.