The operator of some of the most successful horse-racing tracks in the country says it is interested in returning thoroughbred racing to Suffolk Downs, which has been closed since last year.
"Boston is a very lucrative market and we're interested," said Tim Ritvo, the chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, which operates Pimlico, among other well-known tracks. "We're open to anything, but it seems like a stretch to get it done immediately."
Consummating a deal may be difficult, in part because Sterling Suffolk, the owner of Suffolk Downs, is already receiving millions of dollars in revenue from the track without incurring the expense of live racing, by simulcasting races with video feeds from other tracks.
So long as Sterling Suffolk has that right to simulcast, it has little incentive to upset the status quo in a deal with Stronach, said Jay Bernardini, a horse trainer.
But if the state Gaming Commission takes away Sterling Suffolk's right to simulcast, the track owner "is more apt to come to the table," he said.
The commission is scheduled to weigh in on the matter at its meeting next week.
Horse racing is tightly regulated by state law. One key provision requires any track that simulcasts to also operate live racing, a stipulation crafted so that simulcasts would not push live racing out of the state.
That provision came into play when Sterling Suffolk last year announced it would close Suffolk Downs.
The owners made the decision after the gambling commission awarded the Greater Boston casino license to Wynn Resorts over a proposal from Sterling Suffolk and its partner, Mohegan Sun, for a casino at Suffolk Downs. Sterling Suffolk says it has lost tens of millions of dollars on the track.
The New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the group representing horse owners and trainers, stepped into the void, saying it would operate the track, if Sterling Suffolk would lease it.
For months, the horsemen's group and Sterling Suffolk negotiated, with the horsemen proposing as many as 50 days of racing.
As part of the law regulating simulcasts, the state Legislature requires that tracks hold a minimum number of days of live racing. In some years, that figure ranged as high as 100 days. But in March lawmakers enacted a bill at the behest of Sterling Suffolk and the horsemen's group that called for a minimum of one day.
In April, the horsemen's group and Sterling Suffolk struck a deal to hold three days of racing at Suffolk Downs.
Under the plan, the two entities would fund races in part by taking advantage of a provision in the 2011 state casino law that earmarks a percent of gambling revenue for horse racing.
Now, Sterling Suffolk must conduct at least one day of racing to protect its simulcasting rights.
But a dissident group of horse owners and trainers is putting up a spirited fight to block approval.
That group, led by Billy Lagorio, a horse trainer, has argued that a mere three days of racing benefits Sterling Suffolk, by validating its simulcasting rights, while delivering little benefit to horse owners and trainers.
It was Lagorio who initiated talks with the Stronach Group for a possibly longer season of racing.
Lagorio had scores of supporters in the audience last week when he asked the gambling commission to put off a vote on the three-day racing season, which the panel did.
Lagorio has asked the commission to deny Sterling Suffolk the right to simulcast to encourage the track owner to negotiate with Stronach.
Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer of Sterling Suffolk, last week told the commission he did not think leasing the facility to Stronach was feasible for this year. He also said the commission should not be drawn into private business discussions between Sterling Suffolk and Stronach.
In a statement released last night, Tuttle took exception to what he said was Stronach's "impression" that the Gaming Commission might deny Sterling Suffolk's request for a three-day season and by doing so give Stronach "leverage" in discussions between Sterling Suffolk and Stronach.
"That would be unprecedented and grossly unfair," the statement said.