Casinos emerge as surprising savior for struggling racetracks
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Two years ago, thoroughbred horse racing was dead in Massachusetts, a victim of years of declining interest and a failed casino bid at the region's most renowned racetrack, Suffolk Downs.
This weekend, the East Boston track will roar back to life, with scores of horses galloping around the one-mile oval in pursuit of a half-million dollars in prizes. And in a twist, it's casinos that are fueling the improbable comeback.
Backed by millions in casino revenues earmarked for the languishing industry, thoroughbred racing is poised for something of a resurgence this summer, both at Suffolk Downs in East Boston and, after a 15-year hiatus, the Brockton Fairgrounds.
Under the state's 2011 casino law, a small percentage of gambling revenue and licensing fees is set aside in a special fund to subsidize horse racing, money that critics say could be put to far better use.
Even with just one casino open in Massachusetts — Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville — the fund already has a balance of about $15 million, and it will receive as much as $18 million annually once three planned resort casinos are up and running.
For six days of racing that kick off Saturday, Suffolk Downs will receive $2.4 million from the state's "race horse development fund," money that will pay for purses, the cash prizes paid to a winning horse's owner, trainer, and jockey. Races are also scheduled for Aug. 6-7 and Sept. 3-4.
Suffolk Downs, which opened in 1935 and was the first horse track in the country with a concrete grandstand, closed as a full-time live-racing venue in 2014 after a Mohegan Sun casino proposed for the site was voted down.
It has remained open for simulcasting, which allows gamblers to wager on televised races from other tracks, while owners decide the future of the 160-acre property.
Six days of racing are a far cry from the track's glory days, but horse racing supporters say even a modest slate gives the sport a much-needed boost, at least in the short term.
"It keeps racing alive, even if its long-term viability remains in question," said Alexander M. Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association in Lexington, Ky. "Boston is a first-class sports town with a rich racing history and deserves a world-class racetrack."
Horse racing has been fading in popularity for decades, a decline accelerated by the proliferation of Las Vegas-style casinos and the massive appeal of televised team sports. Critics say propping up events that generate minimal public interest is the worst kind of corporate welfare, but the state Legislature has shown little interest in redirecting the money.
"The purpose of allowing casinos to come into Massachusetts was to reap a benefit for the whole state, not for one narrow, private industry," said state Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat.
The driving force behind casino financing for horse racing was House Speaker Robert DeLeo, whose father was maitre d' at Suffolk Downs and who represents a district that includes a portion of Suffolk Downs and is home to many of its workers. DeLeo's office declined to comment.
For horse racing enthusiasts, casinos have assumed an unlikely role as saviors. George Carney, owner of the Brockton Fairgrounds, hopes to draw on the fund to finance as much as 30 days of racing.
"As long as there's money, we're going forward," Carney said. "This is what the law envisioned and we're happy to be able to give the industry this opportunity."
Carney and his backers need the approval of the state Gaming Commission, which in April rejected plans for a $677 million casino at the Brockton Fairgrounds. Whether the panel approves funds needed to repair the track, along with prize money, is an open question. A ruling is expected sometime this month.
Stephen Crosby, chairman of the commission, declined to comment on the Brockton plan, but said legislation pending on Beacon Hill would give the panel more discretion over the racing fund. That latitude would help the commission shape a strategy for reinvigorating the industry, he said.
"The commission would like to exercise the judgment and leadership to get thoroughbred horse racing back on its feet," he said.
Under current law, 80 percent of the fund is designated for purses, while 16 percent goes to horse breeders. Four percent is put toward health and retirement benefits for workers in the industry. A portion of the fund also supports harness racing, which runs at Plainridge Park.
The money is meant to pump life into a moribund industry, which critics say should be left to stand or fall on its own.
"The state has a lot of mouths to feed, and I'm sure there are more worthy causes for this kind of state revenue than to prop up the horse racing industry," said Paul D. Craney, executive director of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative watchdog group. "It doesn't seem right."
Eileen P. McAnney, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the state's current budget woes call the fund into question.
"It may be time to take another look at whether it makes sense to continue this funding," she said.
But in Brockton, the outlook is hopeful. If races go well in Brockton this year, Carney said he will consider building a new seven-furlough track in Raynham, where his family's now-closed dog track remains open for simulcast betting.
But Carney also faces a lawsuit from the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, a group of horse owners and trainers who contend the Brockton track is dangerously short and should not be allowed for races.
"The racetrack is a five-furlong bullring racetrack," the suit states. "It is significantly less than one mile in circumference and narrow. This renders the racetrack extremely dangerous to the thoroughbreds racing there, and to the jockeys riding them if proper safeguards are not in place."
A competing horsemen's group has emerged to challenge the New England Horsemen, a rift sparked by frustration over the dearth of racing days.
Billy Lagorio, who leads the new group, is allied with Carney in hopes of bringing enough racing to Brockton to let local horsemen eke out a living.
But at this point, the only sure bet for racing is the old standby: Suffolk Downs.
"It's great to welcome back horse racing to Suffolk Downs," said Chip Tuttle, the track's chief operating officer. "We love to see horse racing fans come back for live racing."