Suffolk Downs racetrack closing in Massachusetts

Suffolk Downs in happier times: Horseracing attendance has dropped by 40 percent in recent years. Now the selection of Wynn Everett for the East Massachusetts casino license has sealed the racetrack’s fate.(Image: bloodhorse.com)

Suffolk Downs, the historic thoroughbred horseracing track in East Boston, is to close, officials have announced. Meanwhile, Wynn Resorts celebrates securing the sole East Massachusetts casino license for their Wynn Everett project, which will see the construction of a $1.2 billion casino resort in Everett, barring an unlikely casino repeal vote in November.

Suffolk Downs is be the first casualty of this week’s selection process. In favoring the Wynn bid over that of the Mohegan Sun’s, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission has hammered the final nail into the coffin of thoroughbred horseracing in the state. Suffolk is one of only two horseracing tracks in Massachusetts, and the only one exclusively for thoroughbreds.

Mohegan Sun’s proposed resort was to have been built on land owned by Suffolk Downs in Revere, and the racetrack had pledged to continue horseracing there for at least 15 years should Mohegan Sun win the bid. However, the Commission, which voted 3:1 against Mohegan Sun, decided that the Wynn proposal offered better potential to create jobs and open up new avenues of revenue for the state. Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle made the announcement that the track would not be able to continue soon after the Gaming Commission’s decision was made public.

End of the Track

“We are extraordinarily disappointed as this action is likely to cost the Commonwealth thousands of jobs, small business and family farms,” Tuttle said. “We will be meeting with employees and horsemen over the next several days to talk about how we wind down racing operations, as a 79-year legacy of Thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts will be coming to an end, resulting in unemployment and uncertainty for many hardworking people.”

The industry has been hit by a 40 percent reduction in recent years and Suffolk’s closure is likely to affect hundreds of thoroughbred breeders, owners, farriers and others who make their living in Massachusetts horseracing industry. The need to safeguard Suffolk Downs was one of the primary motivations for the 2011 Gambling Act, which expanded casino gaming in Massachusetts and created the east Massachusetts casino license, and the decision to go with Wynn has angered many people.

“Today’s decision to award the license to Everett effectively put several hundred of my constituents out of work,” said Representative RoseLee Vincent, a Revere Democrat. “It is disturbing that the commission could minimize the jobs of 800 hardworking people.”

Rich History

Many industry workers feel betrayed by politicians and the Gaming Commission. “What’s depressing is we worked so hard to get that gaming bill passed with the idea that it was going to save the farms and save racing in Massachusetts,” said George F. Brown, the owner and manager of a breeding farm, who added that the ruling would “probably pretty much … put all of the farms like mine out of business.”

Suffolk Downs opened in 1935, soon after parimutuel betting was legalized in the state. In 1937, Seabiscuit won the Massachusetts Handicap here, breaking the track record in the process. The race was attended by 40,000 people. Over the years, the track has hosted races featuring legendary racehorses like Whirlaway, Funny Cide, and Cigar. In 1966, the Beatles played a concert here on the track’s infield in front of 24,000 screaming fans.

Ultimately, though, a rich history wasn’t enough to save Suffolk Downs, and, ironically and poignantly, the bill that was designed to rescue this famous old racetrack appears to have killed it.