09/25/2005 11:00PM

Racing canceled for slots hearing

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EAST BOSTON, Mass. - Wednesday's racing at Suffolk Downs has been canceled to allow the region's horsemen and track employees to rally at the State House and testify before a joint legislative committee holding hearings on allowing slot machines at Massachusetts racetracks.

"The future of Thoroughbred racing in New England, and specifically at Suffolk Downs, is at stake," said Mario DeStefano, president of the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "This legislation is so important to us that we really feel the need to be significantly represented at the State House for Wednesday's hearing. This would not be possible if there was live racing that day."

Supporters of slot machines have been encouraged by changes in the leadership of the House of Representatives that they feel would give a bill a better chance of passing. In recent years, slots bills have been stopped in committee or defeated in the House, including a 2003 plan that was defeated by a vote of 86-65.

Despite his support for expanded gaming when the state was facing budget shortfalls, Gov. Mitt Romney has said he will veto any new legislation, saying the state's economy is in better shape now. Romney is also said to be mulling a Republican presidential bid, and legalizing slot machines could bring pressure from national conservative groups.

"We feel like if it could get to an open vote it would stand a better chance," said Suffolk's chief operating officer, Bob O'Malley. "There is support in the Senate, but unfortunately that's not where legislation like this comes from. We've got some hurdles here first before we start to think about the governor.

"This is a critical time for Suffolk Downs and the racing industry in this state," he said. "The HBPA feels strongly about having a noticeable presence at this hearing, and canceling the live card on Wednesday will allow them to do so."