10/07/2004 12:00AM

Purses may be stretched thin in 2005


EAST BOSTON, Mass. - Requesting racing dates in New England used to be a cutthroat political exercise. With only one track left running Thoroughbred dates, this year's request is an exercise in survival.

Suffolk Downs officials want to reduce the number of races they run to maximize their limited purse funds, but the responsibility of supporting the region's horsemen means there won't be much change in the schedule in 2005.

Suffolk has requested a shorter season running from April 30 to Nov. 19 with the hope of running some five-day weeks during the summer - rather than the four-day weeks of the past - to avoid racing in winter weather late in the meet. Suffolk chief operating officer Bob O'Malley had looked into running fewer races in 2005, but said the horsemen asked that the schedule stay the same.

"It's going to be a tough year," said O'Malley. "My opinion is that to maintain purses we should think about running less, but the horsemen have asked us to keep the place open as long as we can. We'll do our best to try to help. This meet turned out all right even after taking the winter off, but the horsemen said they can't handle too much more, and we'll do what we can to support them as long as we can still duck the winter weather."

Suffolk changed the composition of the racetrack from a winterized surface to one more suited to summer racing. To change it back would be prohibitively expensive, he said.

"We really seemed to get the track right this season," said O'Malley. "Now we have to do what we can to avoid getting into the winter weather, because we can't afford to change the track over."

O'Malley had hoped Rockingham Park could relieve some pressure on Suffolk. The New Hampshire harness track staged three Thoroughbred turf races over Labor Day weekend, but officials there have no plans to expand far beyond those limited grass-racing days and are committed to harness racing from May to September in 2005.

"We had a meeting with the horsemen," said Rockingham general manager Ed Callahan. "We were all pleased with how the turf races turned out. The problem is the horse population next year. We thought about maybe running grass races on Sundays or Friday nights, but if there's already trouble filling races at Suffolk, there's little sense trying to schedule races up here."

Simulcasting laws in Massachusetts will expire next year, and O'Malley is hoping to focus on getting new bylaws in place early. When the last bill expired in 2000, a series of temporary extensions kept the track from shutting down while permanent new laws were hammered out. Slots and a voter referendum that nearly banned greyhound racing complicated matters then.

"I don't see anything imminent in the Legislature," O'Malley said about any new slots proposals, but a recent change in the House leadership might have removed an obstacle to expanded gaming.

* William "Red" Beaton, a former New England trainer and paddock judge, died of cancer this week in Ocala, Fla., at age 72. Private memorial services are planned.

* A week after plans for a racetrack in Nashua, N.H., were made public, developers have pulled back in the face of local opposition. Winner's Circle Development Ventures says it will look at other New England sites.