10/04/2014 5:56PM

Tears and thrills on Suffolk's closing day


EAST BOSTON, Mass. -- "Listen to that. You can't get that in a slots machine parlor or casino," said owner and trainer Jane Martin, as she stood in the packed Suffolk Downs clubhouse and heard the enthusiastic roar of the energized crowd of over 9,000 as they stood and cheered the horses through the stretch on the final day of live racing.

The owners of the 79-year-old track, where Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Skip Away, and Cigar once competed, were forced to close the curtain on racing after the Massachusetts Gaming Commission turned away the proposal of gaming partner Mohegan Sun for the sole Boston area casino license. Instead, the MGC favored the rival plan from Wynn Resorts and its plan to develop a $1.6 billion casino only two miles from the soon-to-be emptied stable area.

Now that the meet is over at the last of the 17 Thoroughbred racetracks that once operated in New England, Suffolk Downs plans to shutter its doors for simulcasting, and for good, in December.

"The end of live racing is devastating," said trainer John Assimakopolous, who has also owned and bred horses in New England with his father, New England Turf Writers Association Hall  of Fame member Charlie Assimakopolous. "I'm relocating to Gulfstream, but my heart will always be here. This is home. We've been in the business here for over 35 years. Every year, the last day of the meet is always sad, but today is especially so."

Racing fans, sports fans, and those simply wanting to be part of history turned out, and the track did not disappoint them.

Each of the nine races, which attracted full fields for the first time all season, was named for a horse, person, or event tied to the track's glorious history. The fourth was "The Beatles" for when the Fab Four played here in 1966, the eighth was "The Cigar" for the winner of the 1995-96 Massachusetts Handicap, and the last was "The Seabiscuit", reminding of when the horse of his generation, jockey Red Pollard, and trainer Tom Smith, who are in the Hall of Fame with him, stabled here in the track's first year of operation in 1935.

When Bo Badger, owned by Eighth Note Stable and trained by John Botty, won the last race in a photo finish under a gutsy ride up the rail on a muddy track by veteran Taylor Hole, the skies opened up with a dreary rain and there was nary a dry eye in the house.

"I can't explain what John and I are feeling right now," said an emotional and teary Kathy Botty, the assistant to her husband, as applause erupted around them in the winner's circle. "It's overwhelming and unbelievable."

Hole, a journeyman and the son of former longtime New England jockey Mike Hole, said he could feel the energy of the crowd not only rooting his horse to the wire, but throughout the day.

"For 27 years, this racetrack has put a roof over my family's head," he said as his eyes welled up  with tears. "I don't want to see it end, but if it has to, it was great to win the last race. It's great to win any race any day, but this one will always be special. I didn't know I had won until my number went up, I had my head down and was still riding three jumps past the wire."

Tammi Piermarini, the third winningest female rider of all-time, who won twice on the day, was among the jockeys and horsemen who now have to figure out where they will ply their trade next.

"I rode my first winner here and now I've ridden my last here," said the 2013 inductee in the NETWA Hall of Fame and the owner of four Suffolk riding titles, who began her career in 1985. "I don't know yet where my family and I will go next. I have three young children and it's all up in the air."

George Saccardo, who has reigning New England-bred Horse of the Year and three-time Massachusetts-bred stakes winner Victor Laszlo in the barn, said that he will take the winter off and wait to see if the horsemen's attempt to lease the track and run a meet in 2015 is successful.

"I had eight to 10 useful horses this meet and I've already sold two for show and had a couple adopted. Some of my help will got to Tampa [Bay Downs]," he said. "All of us have been hanging on and holding on for the last four or five years. My three biggest clients went to New York and Pennsylvania [for purses fueled by casino revenue] over the last few years. If somehow we can race here next spring, I'll go back to business as usual and start recruiting horses and owners again."

While Suffolk was hosting its swan song on Saturday and there were long lines at the mutuel windows but little action at the claim box, New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective officials were in their on-track office working to structure a deal that would allow them to lease the facility and keep the flame alive.

On Oct. 1, the NEHBPA filed a "placeholder" application with the MGC for 65 dates in 2015 and the organization has the leeway to return with a detailed plan by Nov. 15.

"I feel absolutely terrible that this could be the end of live racing in New England, and I hope that we can put together a deal that will be the beginning of a bright new future," said NEHBPA President Anthony Spadea. "There are so many determining factors and we're trying to figure it all out. Our priority is to continue racing right here where we belong."

Nonetheless, restoring racing at Suffolk Downs remains a huge longshot.

"We've told the horsemen that we are definitely keeping an open mind. We are more mindful of how difficult it is to run a meet," said Chip Tuttle, Suffolk's chief operating officer.

Still, Tuttle was pleased that Suffolk Downs went out on a high note.

"We had a great crowd here today, although it was bittersweet. We wanted to be able to accommodate all of the fans who requested a fitting send-off to the track and we accomplished that," he said.