Gambling panel’s decision spells end for Suffolk Downs races
REVERE — It was supposed to be one more heart-pounding Suffolk Downs comeback after nearly 80 years of them: An embattled racetrack charges from 10 lengths behind to win.
That hope was trampled Tuesday, when state gambling commissioners voted to back a rival casino in Everett, shunning a plan to build a Mohegan Sun casino on the Suffolk Downs grounds in Revere.
In the wake of the decision, Suffolk Downs officials quickly announced their intention to wind down racing operations at the last thoroughbred track in the New England and promised to meet with employees in the coming days to discuss details. The impending demise was felt deeply, both by those who looked to the racetrack for their livelihood and by those who came to gamble a little bit of their own on a horse with a bounce to its step.
“It’s a darn shame,” said Jim Hannon, 86, the former longtime race announcer at Suffolk Downs who still works there as a teller.
“People are going to be out on the street, unfortunately, and it probably will happen sooner than you think,” he said.
Chip Tuttle, the track’s chief operating officer, announced that continuing to operate Suffolk Downs would be “impossible,” leaving an uncertain future for employees, contractors, horse farmers, and the East Boston and Revere neighborhoods that had been waiting to hear whether Route 1A would be the state’s answer to the Las Vegas strip.
“The casino was the only thing that was going to bring Revere back,” said John Halley, a retired gas line worker who has lived in Revere all his life. “Once Suffolk has closed, there’s nothing.”
Saving Suffolk Downs, which has been losing money for years, was one of the prime motivations behind the 2011 casino bill signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick. Lawmakers from East Boston and Revere championed the legislation, believing it would preserve hundreds of jobs for their constituents who worked at the struggling track, founded in 1935.
The issue was particularly poignant for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a chief proponent of the bill, whose father, Al, spent 50 years working the floor at the Turf Club at Suffolk, and whose district includes part of the racetrack.
DeLeo had called Suffolk’s workers “the forgotten people” in the debate over expanded gambling and said in 2010: “I’ve been with them. I’ve spoken to them. They’re my friends, and that’s what I’m concerned about.”
On Tuesday, DeLeo made no mention of his years-long campaign to save Suffolk in a statement that spoke broadly of the benefits of expanded gambling in Massachusetts.
“In the coming years, gaming revenue will help fund local aid, essential local capital projects, health care, economic development, and other crucial areas,” he said.
But other legislators who represent track workers lashed out at the commission’s decision.
Representative RoseLee Vincent, a Revere Democrat, called it baffling.
“Today’s decision to award the license to Everett effectively put several hundred of my constituents out of work,” she said in a statement. “It is disturbing that the commission could minimize the jobs of 800 hardworking people.”
Track workers approached by a reporter Tuesday glumly declined to speak about the future.
Others who make their living in the trade openly expressed dismay.
“What’s depressing is we worked so hard to get that gaming bill passed with the idea that it was going to save the farms and save racing in Massachusetts,” said George F. Brown. The owner and manager of Briar Hill Farm in Rehoboth said the news was devastating to thoroughbred breeders like him.
Brown, 79, whose family has owned Briar Hill since the 1850s, said, the ruling is “probably pretty much going to put all of the farms like mine out of business.”
“We have a breeding program in Massachusetts, and we have to race in Massachusetts in order to take advantage of the program,” Brown said. “And Suffolk Downs is the only racetrack left in Massachusetts.”
While many in Revere reeled at the news, the mood was jubilant in Everett, host to the planned casino by Steve Wynn.
“It’s a great day for Everett and a great day for the Commonwealth because of the millions in new revenues for the state,” said Vincent Raguccci Jr., 72, a retired banker and a lifelong city resident. “I’m elated it’s us.”
Michael Matarazzo, the city clerk for eight years and a city councilor for 18 years before that, said: “We have a lot of work ahead of us as a city. ... Hopefully it leads to more development.”
At Suffolk Downs, the track for economic development seems suddenly muddy and slow.
Mayor Dan Rizzo of Revere compared the news to the tornado that struck the city in July, but said Revere’s ability to rebound then was cause for hope in the future.
“Our community is resilient,” Rizzo said. “I have no doubt that our city’s best days lie ahead.”
There were few specifics, however, for the future of the racetrack.
Some speculated it was a prime spot for redevelopment, because of its proximity to Logan Airport.
In the shadow of Suffolk Downs, where racing ends this month for what could be the last time, not all the reaction Tuesday was negative. Some expressed relief at the news and excitement about the chance to build the town’s future instead of betting with it.
“They could rehab it into something more useful,” said Walter White, a longtime East Boston resident. Only the shows would have brought him to the casino, he said, and his concerns about traffic are now Everett’s problem.
Last year, East Boston voters rejected a $1 billion plan to put a gambling resort at Suffolk Downs. Revere voters supported the plan.
But as Suffolk fast approaches the finish line, even some who have never studied a racing form find themselves lamenting the loss of the state’s last racetrack and its nostalgic brand of romance.
“The Beatles played here,” said Laila Nashat, who lives just a few hundred feet from Suffolk Downs and on Tuesday was walking home with a load of groceries.
“It’s a historic place.”