05/31/2012 3:23PM

Suffolk Downs: With casino license in sight, track reaches out to community


With a clear path to a lucrative casino license ahead, Suffolk Downs opens its live racing season Saturday with an emphasis on community outreach and an appearance by their homegrown celebrity former track announcer.

There have been reasons for optimism in the two-decade quest to bring expanded gaming to East Boston, only to have those hopes squelched by various political actions. This year, casinos have been approved by the legislature and governor, Suffolk has a partnership deal in place with gaming heavyweight Caesars International, and major potential competitors in the eastern Massachusetts region have been stymied.

There are still major hurdles to hop before slot machines are switched on at the 76-year-old racetrack, and for that reason the live racing product starts off much as it has the last few years, with mostly inexpensive races and no stakes schedule yet. The day-to-day schedule is not fully in place. Current law says the track must race 100 days to be able to conduct simulcast wagering, but a bill to reduce that number to 80 is working its way through the statehouse. Until then, the schedule is open-ended later this year. After Saturday, there will be two three-day weeks (Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday). Tuesdays will be added later through September. Three-day weeks would return through Oct. 29 assuming an 80-date requirement is approved, as it was last year.

Saturday marks the return of announcer Larry Collmus for a guest appearance one week before he calls I’ll Have Another’s attempt at a Triple Crown sweep on NBC. Collmus was Suffolk’s race-caller from 1992-2008 and the Maryland-native adopted Boston as home before moving on to jobs at Monmouth Park and Gulfstream Park.

The track is also honoring local individuals and groups through its “Community Winner’s Circle.” Referendums are on the horizon in the host communities of Revere and East Boston if Suffolk is to win a casino license. Local officials must also decide whether the entire city of Boston will participate in that vote or just the “Eastie” neighborhood. Suffolk’s property straddles the Boston/Revere city limits.

Suffolk is opening later than recent seasons in a move to give New England’s regular trainers additional time to make their way up from Tampa Bay Downs and Maryland. The familiar stables of John Rigattieri and Mike Gorham are in action right away along with trainers like Marcus Vitali, who held his own while racing at Gulfstream this winter. Gorham entered two runners in the $19,000 allowance feature in Pics Good Boy and To The Moon. Vitali saddles Running Wildcat in the 1 mile 70 yard contest.

Jockey Tammi Piermarini is expected to contend for the riding title again after winning the last two years. She was the only jockey with more than 100 wins in each of the last two seasons and she passed the 2,000-win mark last summer. She is fourth in all-time career wins by a female behind Julie Krone, Rosemary Homeister, and P.J. Cooksey.

Post time for Saturday’s nine-race card is 12:45 p.m.