03/02/2015 12:55PM

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.”

Pamela Watson More than 1 year ago
well i m not happy with this news i thought we was in for live racing
Sheldon Gl More than 1 year ago
Lets move on already. Except for nostalgia do you think any serious bettors care's if Suffolk runs or not? The racing would be horrible. Someone got a huge under the table payment, in my opinion, to deny Suffolk a casino license. Just waiting to hear when Steve Wynn finds out that the toxic dump he plans on building his new casino is too toxic to be developed costing Mass. billions in lost revenue from a casino that can't be built on a toxic landfill.
Pamela Watson More than 1 year ago
u are a foolish face
Kevin Miller More than 1 year ago
Shoot this mule in the head.
Sal Carcia More than 1 year ago
I thank Lynne for keeping us informed. I can't disagree with some of the comments here. It is never been a fan-friendly place. But, I think the racing was pretty honest the last few years. I think it was. Nevertheless, if they close, I will miss the place.
mikey More than 1 year ago
My money is on Raffetto to get a meet ,He knows the game in and out and will work his butt off to make it happen.
robert More than 1 year ago
there is a rumor around that they are going to reinstate Dutrows training license and he is going to bring a string of 20-25 head there for the summer meet
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
Suffolk Downs problems are self inflicted. The racing there was often so crooked a book called Suffering Downs was written about it..This should serve as an example to other like minded tracks.if they ran an honest operation people would have supported it but they did not..personally im glad to see it go. i have written about going there on a couple of occasions in the past and having a disappointing experience.bad races bad food unattractive facility with airplanes constantly passing over the track (so close you can read the names and numbers on the planes).as i stated before this was the only track in the world that i did not enjoy.and ive been to some bush tracks "literally" including some in africa and south america.suffolk is by far the least fun.
Pamela Watson More than 1 year ago
well some of us like it i think maybe u should go to live in florida maybe u be happier playing gulf every day u are a downer
1971 Whippet More than 1 year ago
As much as I love the game (and knowing the condition of Suffolk Downs), it's unreasonable to expect that the game can be resurrected in Massachusetts. The support just isn't there. The casino money will not be there to subsidize this product. Things change. And there's no reason to think that MA Breds are a foundation to build on. Let it go, everyone.
Jim Fields More than 1 year ago
I HAVE BEEN THROUGH WHAT YOU ARE BEGINNING TO GO THRU AND WE WENT FROM THREE TRACKS IN WASHINGTON STATE, IN THE EARLY NINETIES, AND WE LOST PLAYFAIR, IN SPOKANE, AFTER SEVERAL LOSING OWNERSHIPS, AND THAN I WAS PERSONALLY INVOLVED IN TRYING TO SAVE YAKIMA MEADOWS, PROBABLY THE GREATEST RACING SURFACE IN AMERICA, BUT TO NO AVAIL. WE STILL HAVE, WHAT WAS NEW THAN, EMERALD DOWNS, A BEAUTIFUL FACILITY, BUT OUR BREEDING INDUSTRY HAS GONE FROM THE TOP FIVE NATIONALLY, INCLUDING CANADA, TO BARELY IN THE TOP TWENTY. WE WENT FROM 2500 FOALS A YEAR, TO 250. WE HAD A MUCH LARGER STATE, BUT THREE TRACKS, YOUR STATE IS SMALLER, BUT NO LESS IMPORTANT, BUT MAKE SURE EVERYONE IS ON BOARD, BEFORE SOME OF YOU COMMIT YOUR MONEY. THE STRENGTH IS IN THE NUMBERS. HAVING THE LEGISLATURE WITH YOU IS PARAMOUNT. WE FOUGHT BIGGER MONEY AND THEY WON, AND LOOK WHAT IT DID TO OUR INDUSTRY. THEY ARE BEYOND BEGGING FOR STATE BRED RACES.
Matthew Hood More than 1 year ago
Just let this track die. As Bill Sienkewicz points out, he would be looking to claim the bottom of the barrel to take up there and run for small purses. What's the point? Does this sport really need bad racing?
Pamela Watson More than 1 year ago
practice what u preach