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Talks resume on horse racing at Suffolk Downs

Suffolk Downs in East Boston could see horse racing this summer.
Suffolk Downs in East Boston could see horse racing this summer. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2012/Globe Staff

The on-again, off-again negotiations to bring horse racing back to Suffolk Downs are on again, rekindling a glimmer of hope for the return next summer of New England’s only thoroughbred racing.

The latest jump-start of negotiations came when Suffolk Downs’ owners floated the idea of the track using money generated from the state’s nascent casino industry to help underwrite the cost of running an abbreviated horse racing season.

In a Jan. 15 letter to the state Racing Commission, the track owners also suggested that they were prepared to go ahead on their own, without the cooperation of the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents about 900 local horse owners and trainers.


“We’ve had good, positive discussions with the horsemen” since sending the letter, said Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer of Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, which owns the historic track in East Boston.

Frank Frisoli Jr., attorney for the horsemen, said his group welcomes the renewed negotiations.

“We’re pleased that the owners have come to the table and are talking,” he said.

But no deal has been reached, in part because of disagreement over how long the season should be. The horsemen want as many as 50 days of racing, to allow their members to earn as much as possible, while the track owners want about half that amount, because the track in the last several years has been operating at a loss, and the longer the season the larger the loss.

Sterling Suffolk Downs, the company that owns the track, announced in September that it intended to allow the track, first opened in the 1930s, to go dark following the state gaming commission’s decision to reject Suffolk’s application to operate a resort casino on the site.

The owners said they were done absorbing substantial annual losses after their proposal, made in partnership with Mohegan Sun, lost in the competition for the coveted Greater Boston casino license to Wynn Resorts. Wynn plans a $1.75 billion casino on the waterfront of the city of Everett.


At that point, the horsemen stepped forward, offering to lease the facility to sponsor racing and keep hundreds of its members working. After months of negotiations, however, the track owners walked away, saying that horsemen lacked the money necessary to make their proposal viable.

In their letter to the commission, the track owners touched on the Race Horse Development Fund, which was created as part of the 2011 law that allows Las Vegas-style gambling in Massachusetts.

That provision, meant to support the horse racing industry, directs a substantial percentage of gaming revenues from the state’s casinos and slot parlor to pay for horse racing purses, the cash prizes paid to a winning horse’s owner, trainer, and jockey, among others.

The state-approved slots parlor at Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville could open as early as this summer, meaning the Race Horse Development Fund could begin receiving millions of dollars.

The horsemen have asked the gaming commission whether some of that revenue could be used for expenses, such as a track lease, but the commission has not “officially acted” on its query, Frisoli said.

The Suffolk Downs owners said in their letter that they want to tap into the fund for purses, if the track runs a racing season on its own.

Jon Chesto of the Globe staff contributed to this story. Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.