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yvonne abraham

As Suffolk Downs winds down, an end to a way of life

REVERE – It’s over.

Working with the horses at Suffolk Downs isn’t much of a living, but it’s a good life. Some of the men and women on the backstretch have been working with horses since they were kids.

Long before dawn, they emerge from their cars, or from their beds by the stables, to make the horses go. Unseen behind a high fence, they exercise the animals, clean their stables and coo them into calmness.

They’re happy here. Many of them can’t imagine a life away from the track.

But now they’ll have to. Suffolk Downs lost its bid for a casino license on Tuesday. The track, propped up for years in the hopes that a casino would save its life, is closing for good. The last live race is on September 29.

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“They pulled the plug on the whole damn business,” said Jim Greene, a horse owner who runs The Eighth Pole, an outfit that helps struggling track workers with food and health care.

Related: Suffolk Downs details shut-down plans

Even if you think casinos are a lousy idea, it’s hard not to feel the gut-wrenching loss here. When gaming was approved in 2010, it looked like these guys couldn’t possibly lose. The law seemed tailored for the track where House Speaker Bob De Leo’s father had been a maitre d’. It bolstered purses for races and required racinos to keep their tracks running.

People here were confident. They just had to wait for their day to arrive, bringing with it big purses, quality horses and glitzy new digs.

“I thought we were getting it,” said Joey Duffy, who has been working with horses and jockeys here for 40 of his 54 years. “They told us that years ago. If it wasn’t for Suffolk Downs going after the bill, we wouldn’t even have gaming in Massachusetts.”

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Then it all fell away. Suffolk’s partner, Caesar’s, withdrew after the Gaming Commission raised questions about the company’s business dealings. Then East Boston voted against the casino, even as Revere approved it. Suffolk survived these two death-blows, the first with a shotgun marriage to Mohegan Sun, the second by shifting the project over the Revere line.

But then Steve Wynn swooped in, and Everett won the license so many assumed was headed to Revere. There will be no Lazarus-like comeback now. And so on Wednesday morning, Suffolk Downs chief Chip Tuttle stood before 200 emotional employees in the Topsider Room overlooking the track, hailing them for fighting the good fight, and then telling them what they already knew. On his desk, a three-inch deep pile of letters giving employees 60 days notice awaited his signature.

The men and women of the backstretch won’t get letters. They work at Suffolk Downs, but aren’t employees. About 70 percent of them will move on to other tracks, the way they do most years, except now they won’t come back. Others — too old, or with roots too deep, to relocate — face the prospect of trying to find work beyond the wall. Instead of enduring the off-season, they’re in it for good.

“I always wait for April to come,” Duffy said. “But now there’s no more April.”

Duffy will probably find work outside, though the pay will be lousy. Others won’t be able to make it out there at all, away from the family Greene and others at the track provide.

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“Where do you go when your skill is cleaning stalls?” Greene said. “All of these people are functional in the proper environment. They’re working, they’re proud, they’re happy. [Now] they’re going to become a burden.”

These people are all about beating long odds. And so there was some talk of miracles Wednesday morning; Greene, especially, isn’t giving up. But there was no mistaking the pall that hung over the place as the horses trotted in circles and workers swept the stables.

Thoroughbred racing is no longer a dying industry in Massachusetts. It’s too late for that.


Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com