BOSTON, SEPT. 25, 2014…..Facing criticism for their role in potentially extinguishing the live thoroughbred racing industry, state gambling commissioners stressed Thursday that the deadline for applications is Oct. 1, and they would welcome “placeholder” applications.
The commission’s decision earlier this month to award the Boston-area gaming license to Wynn Resorts over Mohegan Sun’s proposal for a casino at the Suffolk Downs racetrack prompted Suffolk Downs to announce its plans to close and redevelop its East Boston property. The track plans to close Oct. 4.
Asked if horseracing can stay alive in Massachusetts, commission chair Stephen Crosby said Thursday, “It’s been clear for years that there’s been interest in the Legislature to do that, so I think there’s a fighting chance.”
Crosby said the challenge for those seeking to salvage the industry is the tight timeline, with the Oct. 1 statutory deadline approaching soon after the commission’s Sept. 16 vote to hand over the license to Wynn.
“Number one, we’ve said we’ll be very flexible,” Crosby said. “Yes, get us something on October 1, get us an expression of interest, we will be very flexible in letting you come back after the dust settles and you’ve had a chance to put together a plan, we’ll be very flexible in letting you come back and amend that.”
Crosby said the commission is also hoping to convene a strategy meeting with horseracing stakeholders.
Suffolk Downs officials had hoped to keep racing alive at the track in connection with an expanded gambling operation, and track officials over the years have noted that horseracing has not attracted patrons as it had in previous years.
Plainridge Racecourse, which operates harness racing and has received a license to install slot machines, is not interested in switching to thoroughbred racing.
“It’s a challenge but yeah, I do think that it’s theoretically possible to have a free-standing thoroughbred racetrack,” Crosby said. “Whether we can get there or not is a big question but it’s possible.”
Suffolk Downs officials last week lashed out at the commission for its vote, with Chip Tuttle, the racetrack’s chief operating officer, calling the commission’s hopes to save the industry “empty posturing.” Tuttle said over a thousand jobs would be lost due to Suffolk Downs losing out on the license.
“I’m totally sympathetic to where Chip and the whole industry is coming from,” Crosby said on Thursday. “The Suffolk Downs folks, they’ve been at this for a long time. It’s a totally difficult, challenging, depressing circumstance. I understand that. Hopefully we are able to demonstrate there are things we can do and we’re going to try to do them.”
Paul Brooker, a Suffolk Downs worker who attended the commission’s Thursday meeting, likened the commission to someone who shot an individual and then called an ambulance for them.
“What they did here, is they killed racing,” said Brooker, a 79-year-old East Boston resident who works at the track as a blacksmith, making horseshoes.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I hate to see it end.”
Penn National Gaming, which is hoping to open the slot parlor at Plainridge next June, has been in touch with Suffolk Downs officials about job opportunities across the country.
“We’re open to any sort of conversation at this point,” Lance George, general manager of the Plainridge Park Casino, told commission members.
“It’s a natural fit so I’m glad that connection’s being made,” Crosby responded.
Penn National, which operates 12 racetracks nationwide, recently opened a harness track in Dayton, Ohio, and a thoroughbred track in Youngstown, Ohio.
“Thoroughbred horseracing has occurred all over Massachusetts,” Crosby told reporters after the discussion on horseracing. “There’s the Brockton Fair, there’s the Northampton Fair, there’s fairgrounds all over the place, where there are tracks that can accommodate a thoroughbred race. So that’s one of the issues. And plus, you can create a new thoroughbred track. So there are plenty of options out there. How good, which is the better, I don’t have any idea but there are options out there.”
Crosby said he didn’t believe there would be much competition between a racetrack and a resort casino. “The question is whether a racetrack can survive economically on just the economics of the racetrack, without the support of slots and table games, which is the model that’s been happening around the country,” he said. “That’s a challenging model. You don’t find very many racetracks that are standalone. You do find some but you don’t find a lot.”
Crosby said backers of thoroughbred racing can “get creative and think about new structures.” Crosby added that there are a variety of “buckets of money” that come from a “convoluted” financial structure based on simulcasting and horseracing that can be used, through the commission’s administrative authority or through the Legislature’s support, which can be redirected to underpin the financing of a new horseracing venture.
Asked why the commission, which regulates the racing industry, is focused on also saving the industry, Gaming Commission spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll said, “The commission does regulate racing as well as expanded gaming. Jobs is an important factor and also the notion that horse racing is a longstanding tradition here in the Commonwealth.”
Jennifer Durenberger, the commission’s director of racing, suggested the possibility of emergency legislation to change the Oct. 1 deadline, but Crosby said emergency legislation in five days is a “long shot at best.”
Separately, the gaming commission’s general counsel, Catherine Blue, told the commission that several agency employees had asked about seeing Suffolk Downs on their own time as it winds down its racing schedule. Its last day of racing is set for Oct. 4.
Under current rules, agency employees cannot go unless they’re visiting on a business matter.
The commissioners agreed with Blue’s suggestion that the employees could go to the track on their own time as long as they didn’t wager on races and checked in with the State Police while at the track.
Copyright 2014 State House News Service