10/31/2017 10:53AM

Suffolk, horsemen hope to use casino subsidies to build racetrack


The former owners of Suffolk Downs and two organizations representing horsemen and breeders in Massachusetts have formed a partnership to push for a bill that would allow casino subsidies to be used for the construction of a new track in the state.

Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, the holding company that operates Suffolk Downs and holds the track’s year-round simulcasting license, reached the partnership with the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association in advance of a Tuesday hearing on the bill, which has been introduced by Sen. Joseph Boncore.

The bill would allow the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to authorize distributions from the state’s Race Horse Development Fund for any use “it determines to be in the best interest of horse racing” in the state, including “capital improvements of race tracks,” according to the text of the bill. The Race Horse Development Fund was established under the state’s casino laws to subsidize purses and breeder awards from casino operations.

The bill would mandate, however, that “no less than 50 percent” of the fund’s distributions each year go to fund purses.

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In partnership with the New England HBPA, Suffolk Downs has used money from the fund for the past three years to bolster purses for brief race meets at the track. The track’s owners announced in 2014 that they intended to sell the track after being passed over for one of the state’s casino licenses, and this year, the 161-acre property was sold to a real-estate developer. The track has submitted an application for six live race dates in 2018, but has said that next year will be the last for live racing at the property.

The New England HBPA has been pursuing the construction of a new equestrian center in the state, but has acknowledged that the plan would require some help from the state for funding. The bill would appear to provide a measure of that help if it could be used to defray the costs of the construction or back a bond issue.

“We’ve looked at several options and we believe that this is the best path forward to preserve our jobs, our businesses and the thousands of acres of open space associated with horse racing in the Commonwealth,” said the New England HBPA’s president, Anthony Spadea, in a statement.

The partnership was announced in the wake of a June letter sent to the state legislature by the gambling commission’s chairman, Stephen Crosby, urging legislators to reject proposals to divert money from the Race Horse Development Fund to other state budget items. The letter also said that the commission “stands ready to work with the legislature and with all horse racing constituents to design and implement a sustainable strategy for re-generating and maintaining this important and exciting industry.”

In the letter, Crosby said that the Race Horse Development Fund had collected $30 million in subsidies since 2014.

Earlier this year, officials with The Stronach Group, a private company, approached legislators and the gambling commission with a proposal to hold Thoroughbred races at Raynham Park, a defunct greyhound track, or the Brockton Fairgrounds, but that plan hinged on legislation that would have granted The Stronach Group broad and exclusive rights over simulcasting in the state. That would have threatened Suffolk’s own hold over the simulcasting rights.

The Stronach Group plan did not have the full support of the New England HBPA, which has said that it would prefer to hold racing at a new facility. The Stronach Group did reach out to a rival horsemen’s group that has lobbied aggressively for far more racing dates than currently held in the state.

Chip Tuttle, the chief operating officer of Suffolk, said that the group fully supports the New England HBPA’s proposal for the new track. The statement released by the group said that the partners are evaluating sites for the facility, which would also host other equine activities.

“We share the horsemen’s vision for a year-round, multi-use facility and look forward to working with the legislative leadership and other stakeholders to pass legislation that would allow Thoroughbred racing to continue in Massachusetts,” Tuttle said.