08/14/2008 12:00AM

Dog track, once a rival, to be partner

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The owners of Suffolk Downs in East Boston have made an agreement to buy nearby Wonderland Greyhound Park and will move forward as partners in pursuit of a lucrative resort casino license.

The two tracks, separated by about a mile and rivals since both opened in 1935, will continue to operate independently, but Suffolk's principal owner, Richard Fields, closed a deal Aug. 13 that would allow the horse track to buy the 35-acre dog racing facility at some point in the future.

The deal comes as Massachusetts legislators prepare for another round of proposals to expand gambling and state voters decide whether to ban dog racing.

Gov. Deval Patrick last year proposed building three resort casinos in the state. The governor's casino plan was defeated in March, but statehouse observers expect it to resurface in 2009.

Fields developed the Seminole Hard Rock casinos in Florida before buying a controlling interest in Suffolk in 2006. His lobbyists helped shape the governor's proposal last year, and Suffolk was considered a leading candidate to land one of those casinos in the heart of the Boston area.

The option to buy Wonderland eliminates competition for that Boston-area license. It also rescues the dog track at a time when it has struggled financially. Once the most powerful track in the state, Wonderland owes a significant tax bill to the city of Revere and has shuttered much of its plant over the last decade.

Without a deal, Wonderland's options would be severely limited should dog racing be banned by a statewide referendum in November. The state's two greyhound facilities survived a similar vote by 2 percentage points in 2001.

No timetable was announced on when Fields might exercise the option to buy Wonderland. There was no commitment to continue dog racing if Suffolk takes over, with Fields also announcing he would provide funding for Wonderland's greyhound adoption program.