Suffolk Downs: Will The Show Still Go On?
I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, Mass. The track first hit my radar screen when the late baseball impresario Bill Veeck (rhymes with wreck) wrote a book, “Thirty Tons a Day: The Rough Riding Education of a Neophyte Racetrack Operator,” chronicling his short-lived tenure as president of Suffolk in 1969-70.
Remnants of Veeck’s days at Suffolk still exist: a palatial office including a unique private shower with multiple jets that allowed him to take off his “peg-leg,” then hobble in and wash off the backstretch dirt without having to be too acrobatic. His book’s title refers to the thousands of pounds of horse manure created on the backstretch each day; the subtitle dealt with the unexpected difficulties an entrepreneur like Veeck encountered as a rookie racetrack operator dealing with regulators, politicians, horsemen, and employees.
Forty years after Veeck, another first-time racetrack operator, Richard Fields, finds himself equally perplexed by the challenges of trying to keep Suffolk Downs alive.
Back in Veeck’s day, comparatively speaking, New England racing was thriving. Today, all the region has left is Suffolk Downs, known to many who have been there through thick and thin as Sufferin’ Downs.
Suffolk also has seen some great racing over the years, and you don’t have to go back to the 1930s and ‘40s when horses like Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, and Stymie took center stage. In the 1990s, the two-time Horse of the Year Cigar rocked Suffolk Downs with back-to-back victories in the Massachusetts Handicap.
One of Veeck’s goals was to increase the number of racing days to grab a bigger share of the booming gambling market. The boom has long since gone bust, however, and Suffolk was on life support when Fields led a partnership that bought the track in 2007.
Fields and his partners have made no secret of their desire to turn Suffolk into a gambling palace, and they have said racing will be a major part of the show. He has lobbied long and hard to get legislative approval, and it only seems a matter of time before the legislature and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick agree on a package that will give Suffolk Downs an opportunity to bid on an expanded gambling license.
In the meantime, the show goes on, with year-round simulcasting helping support an anemic live racing program that has a statutory minimum of 100 days per year, offers rock-bottom purses of about $78,000 per day, and attracts very little interest from horseplayers.
But the show may not go on much longer. Fields and his Suffolk Downs team want to reduce the minimum number of days by as much as one-third, and horsemen, through the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, have drawn a line in the sand.
Horsemen, in fact, want to increase rather than decrease the number of live racing days, citing numerous reasons.
The NEHBPA, in a “fact sheet,” wrote the following: “The legislature, in the last bill passed by the House and Senate (but amended by the Governor), supported the position of the NEHBPA, Massachusetts Breeders Association, and advocates of open space and the Massachusetts farms, acknowledging that a minimum of 125 days of live racing is necessary to support the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders and Massachusetts farms.”
I found that to be a laughable statement. According to the Jockey Club Fact Book, there were 41 Thoroughbred mares bred in Massachusetts in 2009. Forty-one. The Massachusetts foal crop of 2008 was 34. Five years earlier, it was a whopping 86 foals.
So according to the legislature, the NEHBPA, and the Massachusetts Breeders Association, the state needs four racing days for every live foal it produced three years ago. Using that formula, Kentucky would require more than 30,000 racing dates a year.
You know which states produced more Thoroughbred foals than Massachusetts in 2008? North Dakota, Georgia, South Carolina, and even Utah, where it’s illegal to even say the word “gambling.” The state of Washington, which produced 519 Thoroughbred foals in 2008, will race 82 live days at Emerald Downs in 2011. Yet these horsemen think the breeding industry needs 125 days … for what? To nudge the foal crop up to 50?
I don’t know where the truth lies when it comes to the distribution of simulcast revenue (or what’s left of it, since the NEHBPA used its legal right to shut down the signal from the New York Racing Association and convinced horsemen in other states to help them by withdrawing consent on signals from numerous other tracks, including Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs in Florida, where so many Suffolk horsemen spend their winters).
But I do know that it is the height of stupidity to insist on maintaining an artificially high number of live racing dates when a) purse levels are pathetically low; b) the product is awful; and c) no one wants to bet on a product that is so bad.
No organization in their right mind is increasing live racing dates or saying, “We need more racing.” Most racing jurisdictions are cutting back, trying to find windows to use simulcast opportunities to their best advantage. There is a growing “less is more” philosophy in the sport that Monmouth Park exemplified so well last year.
If Bill Veeck were still around, he could write the same book today about Suffolk Downs and give it the same title. Only this time, the manure wouldn’t be coming from the horses.