Racetracks bet it all on slots

INTRO TEXT

bob o’malley’s voice sounds as old and tired as the racetrack he is trying to save. Or perhaps it’s the thoroughbred industry itself that has the 68-year-old chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs worn out. With the Northampton Fair’s decision to eliminate horse racing this summer, the one-mile oval in East Boston is all that remains of thoroughbred racing in New England. Even Rockingham has switched to trotters.

Photo by Meghan Moore.

Shrinking purses and increasing difficulty in drawing quality horses from the South are Suffolk’s latest worries. Meanwhile, down the Route 1A corridor, at Wonderland dog track in Revere, the immediate concern is a referendum to ban greyhound racing that is working its way toward this November’s ballot. Voters rejected such a proposition in 2000, but by a narrow margin, 49 percent to 47 percent. And this year’s version bundles the racing ban with other dog-protection measures, including mandatory imprisonment for anyone who harms a police, military, or service dog in the commission of a felony. A 7News Suffolk University poll in June found support for the measure at 62 percent vs. 27 percent among voters.

But the real prescription for ailing tracks, horse and dog alike, may have nothing to do with racing at all: slot machines. Last fall, the state Senate approved a bill that would have granted the state’s four racetracks (Raynham-Taunton Greyhound Park and Plainville Racecourse, in addition to Suffolk Downs and Wonderland) licenses for up to 2,000 slot machines each—in an attempt to keep Massachusetts bettors in state, rather than traveling to Connecticut’s casinos or Rhode Island’s Lincoln Park dog track. But in April, the House voted down the slots proposal, despite days of demonstrations on Beacon Hill by racetrack employees.

The Senate had attempted to link the slot machines to the extension of simulcasting rights, which allow the tracks to take bets on out-of-state races. When the House rejected the slots, the two branches agreed to extend simulcasting only to December 31, meaning the whole matter would come up again. Then, in July, the Senate passed a bill to extend that deadline for another year, with the apparent intention of separating squabbles between the tracks over simulcast details from discussion of slots, which could resume next year.

“I think it has a chance to be revived,” says state Sen. Michael Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat who supports slots. “I’m still not quite sure what happened over there in [the House], but if they suddenly feel that Suffolk is going to close, maybe then they’ll change their minds on the issue.”

Suffolk is not closing yet, but it’s hardly thriving. For the second time in the last three years, the Massachusetts Breeders’ Cup Handicap was canceled last summer for lack of purse money. Suffolk Downs didn’t have enough cash to fund the race without depleting reserves for the rest of the season’s dates. The minimum of 1,100 races required by law is too many, in O’Malley’s view, to be supported by today’s dwindling racing crowd. (The bill recently passed by the Senate would reduce that number to 900.) The MassCap returns this year, on September 30, but with a purse of $300,000—half what past champions like Funny Cide and Cigar used to take home.

‘We will not survive without slots.’

This spring, not even nature was on the racetrack’s side. Record rains forced Suffolk to cancel three days of live racing out of 20 scheduled in the first month following the opening of the season on Kentucky Derby Day, May 6. Worse than that were rainy days when the track went ahead with limited four and five-horse races. “No one is showing up on days like that,” says O’Malley.

Racetrack operators say that slot machines would increase attendance and the daily “handle,” the total amount wagered at the venues. “[Slots] are key,” says O’Malley. “We will not survive in the long term without slots. I would have thought we could get by for three or five years without it, but the difficulty in getting horses has made that tough.”

Morrissey thinks the continued proliferation of slot machines around New England may make them an easier sell next time around. “Enough of our neighbors have it by now,” says Morrissey. “They’ve even added [slots] to a racetrack in Maine,” where the public share of the take from 1,000 machines is split between Bangor and a neighboring town. A State House News Service poll in May found that 57 percent of Massachusetts respondents favored legalizing slot machines at racetracks, with support among younger people as high as 70 percent.

But it’s Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto that Suffolk officials point to in making their case for the one-armed bandits as a boon to racing as well as the track’s bottom line. Woodbine reported an 80 percent increase in purses in the five years since adding slot machines, along with a 23 percent increase in handles and a 33 percent jump in jobs.

Though another save-the-tracks push for slots may be in the offing, how much longer the tracks themselves will be around to be saved is not clear. “The way they’re putting it is that they’re hanging in there, though hanging on is probably more like it,” says Morrissey.

And while the racing game increasingly looks like it’s for losers, real estate options are looking better than ever. Wonderland, with its Blue Line MBTA stop and 35 acres of prime real estate, is a developer’s dream. According to a Boston Herald poll of real estate executives, the site could command from $700,000 to $1.1 million per acre—a $25 million-plus windfall for track owner and restaurateur Charles Sarkis. Suffolk Downs’s East Boston parcel could be even more valuable.

“I’ve never approached this from the standpoint that I’m trying to save the industry,” says Suffolk’s O’Malley. “If they didn’t use this land for racing, I’m sure they could always find some other use for it.”

Meet the Author
“Over the next year, if something doesn’t work, then the [track] owners are probably going to make that decision on their own,” says Morrissey.

Mark Murphy is a sportswriter for the Boston Herald.