The prayers read over the public address system by Lee Alphen, longtime chaplain of Suffolk Downs, blended in as faint murmurings amid the usual cacophony of the barn area. Tractors clattered as they zipped from barns to racetrack. Balky horses whinnied and jerked on their leads as walkers coaxed them around stables. Two jockeys, workouts complete, traded playful insults.
A horse track, even one in a death rattle, can be a busy and boisterous place.
“Bless us today and every day, oh Lord . . .” Alphen’s muted prayer echoed around the barns late one recent morning. “We pray for all our horses . . . we pray for everyone at Suffolk Downs . . . things aren’t over for us here yet.”
Despite the good chaplain’s affirming morning devotions, thoroughbred racing at Suffolk is expected to end for good Saturday afternoon with the day’s ninth and final race. Opened for business on July 10, 1935, the Depression Era track, the first in the nation to include a concrete grandstand, was dealt its final blow recently when the Massachusetts Gaming Commission opted not to award Mohegan Sun a license to build a casino at the site.
After 79-plus years and thousands of races, the track where the rising legend Seabiscuit won the 1937 Massachusetts Handicap and Dorchester sensation Chris McCarron launched his Hall of Fame jockey career is scheduled to lock its doors permanently when its off-track betting operation shuts down in December.
No one knows what’s next for the 160-acre site at the edge of the Atlantic, but in all likelihood it won’t include the horse business.
“It just breaks my heart,” lamented McCarron, reached in Kentucky. “When I got out of [Christopher Columbus] high school in ’72, I went right to Suffolk and I’ve been on the track ever since. It’s basically the birthplace of my career, so this pains me a great deal.”
Once one of 17 New England sites to feature thoroughbred racing, including 11 tracks in the Bay State, Suffolk ultimately fell prey to the nation’s ongoing cultural shift in betting habits. With the advent of state lotteries in the 1960s and casino gambling embraced by an increasing number of states over the last 30 years, what was once the exclusive betting domain of horse tracks has been systematically taken over, acre by acre, by the varied competition.
A casino was Suffolk’s last chance to slow an economic freefall that track owners say totaled some $60 million in losses the last 7-8 years.
“There was a time in this country when the only legal bet you could make was on a racehorse,” said veteran trainer George Saccardo, standing aside his barn at Suffolk the other day. “The real horse players are going to miss it. And the people who don’t know racing, well, they never knew . . .
“I just think it’s a shame to let the industry disappear in Massachusetts. It’s one of the few cities that has everything. Now you can say Boston used to have it all.”
Too many options
In addition to myriad newfound forms of betting, racetracks also have been hurt, many in the industry agree, by the longstanding tradition of breaks of nearly a half-hour between races. Lottery tickets, printed by the billions, offer instant results. Casinos, chock-full of slot machines and crap tables and poker rooms, are built for round-the-clock betting action.
Ask today’s gambler to wait 25 or 30 minutes until the next race? That’s a huge task in a country where millions get at least one of their three squares at a drive-through window.
“People lost the habit, OK?” noted Jim Hannon, 86, a teller these days at Suffolk and previously its track announcer for 21 years. “There are too many other things on their mind, whether it’s the lottery, or the casinos, or whatever.
“In the old days, when we were kids going to high school, nobody had a car. Everybody walked to school, walked home, walked to a job if they had one, right? Now, the kids in high school, they have to pay to park there are so many cars.”
Pre- and post-World War II, city-based tracks such as Suffolk offered Saturday escapism to blue-collar workers, many of whom had few options but to travel by subway, trolley, or bus. The inability of many to afford cars led essentially to a captive audience, many of whom were captivated by the so-called Sport of Kings.
“Way back in Bill Veeck’s day there also was no simulcasting,’’ recalled Hannon, who was hired by Veeck, then Suffolk’s spirited and colorful owner, as track announcer in 1969. “So people [now] just don’t seem to have the interest. It happens all over the country, not just at Suffolk Downs. People are just doing other things.”
The Beatles played a concert on Suffolk’s infield in 1966, with 25,000 fans streaming there to see the Liverpool Lads, the track still in its heyday. But it was horse racing that packed the place day after day each spring and summer for decades.
On Memorial Day in 1960, a hefty 11-race card pulled in a single-day betting record of just over $2.175 million (since broken). It was a healthy, robust operation, bringing together the everyman $2 punter and some of society’s biggest names.
“It was the place to go and be seen by entertainers, politicians, and everyone under the sun,” said Bob Temple, a former Boston newspaper track reporter who wrote the book, “The History of Thoroughbred Racing in New England.”
“Just some of the people who visited Suffolk Downs over the years . . . Audie Murphy, the greatest hero of World War II. Willie Mays. Bing Crosby. The Andrews Sisters. Hopalong Cassidy. Rin Tin Tin. Mickey Rooney . . .
“It was the place to be seen for politicians, movie stars, radio stars.”
But the great Babe Ruth likely never made it to Suffolk. On June 2, 1935, as the track’s $2 million construction project was wrapping up, the 40-year-old Bambino was released by the Boston Braves and never played in the majors again.
Biggest draw in town
Legalized betting on thoroughbred races began at Rockingham Park in Salem, N.H., on June 21, 1933, and Narragansett Park followed a year later in Pawtucket, R.I. In December 1933, Prohibition was repealed.
The country still in the throes of the Great Depression, horse tracks and parimutuel betting were viewed as an economic stimulus in the years leading up to and through World War II. Tracks were busy, thriving entities offering scores upon scores of jobs.
When Massachusetts roared into the game with the opening of both Suffolk Downs and Agawam Park in 1935, New England totaled four thoroughbred tracks, ostensibly a quarter of the venues that eventually would be supported in five of the New England states (Connecticut abstained).
“To give you an example of how popular thoroughbred racing was,” recalled Temple, who at the apex of his Herald-Traveler days was the year-round track reporter at Suffolk, Rockingham, Lincoln, and Narragansett, “in 1958, Ed Costello, the sports editor at the old Boston Herald, wrote a story that those four tracks — Lincoln, Rock, Suffolk and Gansett — outdrew the Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins combined. The Patriots didn’t start until 1960.
“Think of those figures. They ran more dates, sure, but they also did it without the benefit of night racing. And they didn’t have Sunday racing until the early ’70s. So just four tracks, and they outdrew all those teams.”
In three words, said Temple, he could sum up what sent the business asunder: “Changing . . . consumer . . . tastes.”
“That’s my answer when people ask me why,“ said Temple, now 70 and retired from a career that included 26 years as publicity director and handicapper at the Marshfield Fair. “The younger and the older generations prefer the fast action of casinos. As casinos and other forms of gambling have spread, the sport has just petered out.
“They want to stuff their quarters as quick as they can into the machines and everything. They don’t want to wait the half-hour between races.“
Veterinarian Richard Sheehan Jr. has worked at Suffolk the last 26 years. His father did the same for 35 years, beginning in 1963.
“I’ve known the history,” said the proud vet during a break from rounds one recent morning. “And the glory days in the ’90s with Cigar and Skip Away . . . and the crowds . . . and watching Cigar come off the van with state police escorts from New York and the hundreds of reporters and cameras. Those were the great days.”
Mary Donatti, 89, was just 16 when she first came to the shiny new Suffolk in 1941. She remains a regular visitor on Saturdays, in part, she says, because she’s “always made money here.”
“All these people, where are they going to go?” said Donatti as she stopped to buy a Daily Racing Form at Stewie Solomon’s stand in the clubhouse area. “There’s no jobs.”
Asked if she cared to discuss things further, the sprightly Donatti said, “No, I have to study,” as she peered into her racing form to prep for her day’s first wager.
Of all the races he called at Suffolk, said Hannon, his most memorable was with McCarron aboard Waquoit in the 1987 Massachusetts Handicap.
“A ding-dong battle to the wire,” recalled Hannon, summoning the precise words he used that day, the audiotape of his call used for years on the track’s phone answering service. “McCarron lost the lead to Broad Brush, a big horse from New York, and then came on to win it. I mean, wow!”
McCarron, who would retire as a rider with a then-record $264 million in career purses, recited Hannon’s call from memory last week. By his estimate, Hannon’s voice went up “16 octaves” near the finish and all but perished as Waquoit finished in front of Broad Brush.
“We weren’t supposed to win that race,” said McCarron, 59, who in December will retire from his teaching job at the North American Racing Academy in Lexington, Ky. “Waquoit definitely was the local favorite, and I think half of Dorchester was there, at least all my family was. It was very exciting.”
Decades later, one of Suffolk’s most successful jockeys in recent years, David Amiss, figures to have a mount in Saturday’s farewell ride at the East Boston oval.
“It’s going to bring a tear to my eye not to be able to come back here,” he said the other day, standing at the edge of the winner’s circle. “To see something that has been here for 79 years . . .
“I look forward to coming back here every year. To see all the faces. The backside people. The people in the stands. It’s a community, one big family. It’s a shame to see it go.”