03/02/2015 1:55PM

Horsemen face uncertainty with Suffolk Downs lease

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EAST BOSTON, Mass. – Last week, New England’s horsemen, jockeys, breeders, and other stakeholders were elated when the owners of Suffolk Downs and the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association struck a two-year deal to restore live racing. Now, they are dealing with the reality of the obstacles ahead.

“It’s like a steeplechase race. We’ve made it over the first hurdle, but there are still big ones we have to clear,” said Paul Umbrello, the managing partner of the Charles River Racing syndicate and a board member of the NEHBPA.

The complex deal calls for the newly created New England Horsemen’s Agricultural and Racing Corp. (NEHARC) to lease the 80-year-old racetrack and operate the meet, which will feature anywhere from one to 50 live racing days. The deal requires favorable legislation from state lawmakers and then the approval of the NEHARC’s license by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in order to move forward.

With time running short until the traditional late-spring opening of Suffolk Downs, many stakeholders are uncertain about their plans.

“I am so happy for everyone, and I love home, but I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said John Assimakopoulos, who with his father, Charlie, has been a New England owner, trainer, and breeder for more than 35 years. “I only have five horses now with my father at Gulfstream, and I ache for home and miss it, but I’ve got an opportunity here now. I’ve got stalls here, and my horses are running good.”

Many of New England’s trainers and riders are wintering at Tampa Bay Downs and enjoying a measure of success. Jockeys Luis Garcia and Janelle Campbell, who are engaged to be married, hope to come home to Suffolk.

“We’re on board. If they open, we’re coming home,” said Campbell, an apprentice rider with eight victories at the meet. “But we’re like everybody else. We’re on hold, waiting to hear what will happen and if we can come home.”

Another major issue is the duration of the meet. Until NEHARC officials get a firm commitment from trainers to come back to Boston and know how many fit, race-ready horses they will bring with them, they can’t make assurances.

“Both sides worked extremely hard to bring this deal to fruition, and the next step is to see what the legislature will do,” said NEHARC president Lou Raffetto. “The most important thing is that the horsemen will have a live racing license and conduct live racing. It remains to be seen whether there will be enough horse flesh to sustain a 50-day meet. One thing we don’t want to do is advertise a 50-day meet and then not be able to fulfill that promise. That would be a disastrous situation.”

Bill Sienkewicz, the second-leading trainer at Suffolk Downs in 2013 and 2014 and currently stabled at Tampa Bay Downs, said, “All of the New England guys are dying to come back home, and we’re ready to come, but we don’t want to come back for less than 50 days. We’ll come for 50, but not for 49.”

Sienkewicz added that many of his better horses have been claimed this winter, and he doesn’t want to acquire those who would fit the Suffolk condition book at this stage.

“If I load up on cheap horses and then the meet doesn’t go, I’ll be stuck with them,” he said. “Time is of the essence, and it’s getting short.”
Money matters as well.

“Of the five horses in my barn, four are Florida-breds, and I’m getting in a really nice 2-year-old Florida-bred filly,” said Assimakopoulos. “We won an ‘a-other-than’ the other day at Gulfstream, and the purse was $38,000. And it gets a lot easier in the summer at Gulfstream, when Suffolk would be running. My heart is in New England, but my foot is in the door in Florida”

Still, the Massachusetts breeders are on board.

“The breeders definitely want live racing and will support it,” said Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association chairman George Brown, who has reduced his stallion roster to two at his farm, which has been in his family for more than 150 years. “We’ve already got two new foals.”