09/17/2014 3:54PM

Anxiety, anger as Suffolk Downs closes

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Heartbroken. Betrayed. Sad. Scared.

Those were some of the adjectives expressed by the dismayed and dejected horsemen, riders, breeders, employees, and other industry stakeholders Wednesday, the day after they learned that the 79-year-old Suffolk Downs will be shutting down because gaming partner Mohegan Sun was passed over for the sole Boston-area destination resort casino license.

“When I was driving to the track this morning, I was feeling a lot of anxiety and then had a panic attack,” said Tammi Piermarini, a perennial contender for leading rider here. “I never thought it would come to this, but the loss of the casino was the final straw. It was our last hope.”

On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission voted 3-1 to award the license to Wynn Resorts, which plans to develop a $1.6 billion casino two miles from the stable gate. On Wednesday morning, Wynn officials notified the commission that they would accept the conditions imposed, and the binding agreement was signed.

At the same time, Suffolk’s chief operating officer, Chip Tuttle, held a meeting at the track for a few hundred employees to explain the process for ending live racing operations after the meet ends Sept. 29 and stopping simulcasting in the building some time in December.

“That was a very difficult meeting, as you can imagine, as a lot of people have worked and raced here for a number of years,” Tuttle said. “Our people are very upset, and some don’t quite understand the gaming commission’s decision and the very negative impact it has on them. It’s a tough couple of days around here, but we’re certainly doing our best to work with the employees. There are very difficult repercussions for the people here.”

Principal owner Richard Fields, who politely declined to be interviewed, was at the track shaking hands and talking with people. Tuttle said the track has not been profitable since 2006, and Fields and his partners have been generous and patient since then while losing about $60 million.
Tuttle added that without the casino, it is impossible to keep the track in business. That pronouncement, although not new, still hit hard as it reverberated around the track.

Owner Joe DiRico, who has campaigned several New England divisional champions over the years with his 94-year-old father, Alfred, was on hand to watch his horse run in an $18,000 maiden special weight race.

“Everyone is extremely disappointed in the commission’s decision because we all have so much at stake,” he said. “I dropped four well-bred foals in Massachusetts this year trying to get ahead of the curve, and it backfired on me. Now I’m sitting on two Mass-bred yearlings and two weanlings with no place to run them.

“My father and his older brother were here the day this track opened in 1939, and our family has been a mainstay in New England racing for a long time. We’re all very sad that this is the end of the line.”

George Brown, the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association president, whose farm has been in his family since 1850, said he will have to find new homes for his four stallions. He added that he won’t be doing any more breeding and doubts any of his group’s 100 members will either.

“I’ve been hanging over the cliff for so long that my fingernails are all broken,” he said.

Many of the trainers and riders who call Suffolk home discussed the difficulty of packing up, shipping out, and trying to start over someplace new.

“Where am I going to take my family and start my life over?” asked Piermarini, the mother of three young children. “I have to uproot and go someplace because riding horses is my business. It’s hard enough being a woman in a male-dominated sport, but now I’m 47. I may be the third-winningest female rider, but trainers are going to say, ‘What has she done lately?’ ”

“This is not a good day,” said John Pimental, a trainer who also doubles as an outrider in the afternoons and has been married to jockeys’ agent Diana Pimental for 41 years. “We’ll go to Tampa [Bay Downs] to race for the winter, and after that, we’ll have to look at Delaware [Park], but Diana doesn’t want to move. We own a home here, and our children and grandchildren are here.”

Valerie Ritvo Cabezas, the sister of Gulfstream Park president and former Suffolk rider Tim Ritvo, said the news left her unable to sleep Tuesday night. “It’s going to be so hard to say goodbye,” she said tearfully.