05/30/2013 3:05PM

Suffolk Downs begins meet; casino decision expected by March

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With the Massachusetts Gaming Commission planning to award the sole destination casino resort license designated for the Boston area by March of next year, there is optimism about the future of Suffolk Downs as the track opens its 78th season Saturday.

After favorable expanded gaming legislation was enacted in 2011, Suffolk partnered with Caesars Entertainment to develop a billion dollar project on track grounds. Wynn Resorts and Foxwoods Resorts are the other regional competitors, and all three filed formal Phase I applications along with the $400,000 non-refundable fee with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. Provided Suffolk is successful in passing ballot questions in East Boston and Revere, which the track straddles, and then the Phase I application is approved, it will move forward with the Phase II application during the season.

“Over the last several months, we have held dozens of community meetings, recently hosted more than a thousand local residents to view a 3-D model of our proposed $1 billion development, presented an environmentally friendly landscape design plan, explained our detailed transportation improvement plans to people throughout our area, and met with every neighborhood group asking for more information,” said Chip Tuttle, the chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs. “We continue to make progress in our negotiations with both of our host communities and hope to finalize our agreements in the coming weeks.”

The racing program will maintain last year’s average daily purse distribution of $106,250, and the meet will run 80 days, pending legislative and regulatory approval to reduce the number of days required to simulcast from 100.

Tammi Piermarini, Jackie Davis, David Amiss, and Dyn Panell lead the returning jockey colony, and the father-son team of Charlie and John Assimakopoulos, John Rigattieri, Jay Bernardini, and John Botty figure to vie for top trainer honors.

While Suffolk will present eight stakes races with a purse of $50,000 each for registered statebreds during the meet, the Massachusetts Handicap will not be renewed. The track’s signature event, which once held Grade 2 status with the winner gaining entry into the Breeders’ Cup Classic, was last run in 2008.

“The MassCap has played a significant role in our rich history and if we are successful in earning a license, we would like to reinstate it and other stakes as part of our commitment to enhancing our racing program,” Tuttle said.

Post time is 12:45 p.m., with live racing held on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays through the first week of July. The following week, Tuesdays will be added through the first week in October, and the schedule will revert to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays through Oct. 29. The meet draws to a close Saturday, Nov. 2, and there will be special post times of 1:45 p.m. on Belmont Stakes Day and 12:15 p.m. on Breeders’ Cup Saturday.

On opening day, racegoers who make a $10 donation to One Fund Boston, which was established to help the victims of the Boston Marathon tragedy, will receive a specially designed “Boston Strong” hat or T-shirt plus a track program, with 100 percent of the total collected donated to the charity.

◗ In related news, the New Hampshire House of Representatives on May 22 shot down an expanded gambling bill that earlier in the legislative session had passed the state Senate by a two-thirds bipartisan majority and also had the strong backing of first-term Gov. Maggie Hassan.

The House voted 199-164 against the measure which would have authorized one casino along the state’s southern border with Massachusetts, and then immediately defeated a motion to reconsider the vote 152-212. The bill cannot be reintroduced for the remainder of the year.

The House action was a setback to the possible return of live racing at Rockingham Park, which last hosted a Thoroughbred meet in 2002. Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas holds the option to purchase Rockingham should expanded gambling be legalized and was widely perceived as the odds-on favorite to win the single casino license.