02/25/2014 10:25PM

Suffolk Downs casino referendum passes

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BOSTON, Mass. - Voters in Revere, Mass. turned out in force Feb. 25 to approve Mohegan Sun’s proposal to develop a $1.3 billion casino at Suffolk Downs, keeping hope alive that racing will continue at New England’s sole surviving Thoroughbred track for years to come.

Although official results had yet to be tabulated, the referendum in support of Suffolk Downs, which straddles the cities of Revere and East Boston, is estimated to have passed 63 percent to 37 percent. By state law, a casino can only be situated where voters decide to be the host community.

The ballot measure in Revere was required after a split decision in a Nov. 5 referenda when East Boston voters overwhelming rejected an earlier plan while voters in Revere approved it. Subsequently, Suffolk Downs partnered with Mohegan Sun, which had lost a separate referendum to build a casino in western Massachusetts, and the project was rapidly redesigned and moved entirely to the Revere side of the property.

At the ballot box in November, Revere voters approved the measure 61 percent to 39 percent. Tuesday’s slightly bigger margin of victory may send a message to the five-member Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which has been tasked with the responsibility to award the sole casino license designated for the Greater Boston area.

Suffolk Downs/Mohegan Sun is competing with Wynn Resorts, which has plans to build a $1.6 billion casino in Everett, Mass. Residents in that city, located about two miles from the racetrack, approved the Wynn plan with 86 percent of the vote last June.

Should Mohegan Sun secure the license, Suffolk Downs would be the landlord and Mohegan Sun would own and operate the gaming but have no interest in racing. Nonetheless, Suffolk Downs principal owner, Richard Fields, has pledged that live racing would continue at the 79-year-old track for a minimum of 15 years. That would be a shot in the arm for the state’s Thoroughbred breeding industry as well.

“Second chances are a great thing in life,” said Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle at a raucous victory party at the track. “This is another big step for the future of New England racing. We want nothing more than to be able to race here for another 15 to 20 years, and beyond, and look forward to winning the license and our partnership with Mohegan Sun.”

New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association president Anthony Spadea added, “We’re really excited that we’re moving forward in the process to win the casino license. We are thankful to Suffolk Downs and Mohegan Sun for working so hard on this.”

Nevertheless, if Wynn Resorts is the successful applicant, Suffolk’s ownership team is on record as saying that live racing would not be economically feasible after the 2014 meet, which is conditionally scheduled to be run from May 3 through Sept. 1.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission said on Feb. 24 that due to procedural issues, the decision to award the casino license will likely be pushed back from May 30 to June 30.

The New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and track management are continuing to work on the contract for the upcoming meet, with purse levels and the number of live dates to be determined among other issues. The backside is scheduled to open on March 23.