BOSTON — Suffolk Downs, New England’s last thoroughbred racing track, says it is closing this year as the venue, which once hosted Seabiscuit and other premier horses of the day, falls victim to changes in a gaming industry that now revolves around lotteries and casinos.
The 160-acre track, located just outside downtown Boston, had hoped to revive its sagging fortunes with a $1.1 billion Mohegan Sun casino project. But after the proposal was rejected last week, the operators said they have no choice but to close the nearly 80-year-old track.
The live racing season ends Oct. 4. Betting on televised races — or simulcasts — will be offered until about December. It is a blow to the local racing industry and, to some, the end of an era for Boston.
“It was a great, great part of the sports tradition we had here,” says Anthony Spadea, who, as President of the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, remains optimistic state leaders will find a way to preserve thoroughbred racing in the Bay State, perhaps on a smaller scale. “Now, there’s so much competition for the entertainment dollar.”
As word of the track’s likely closing has spread in recent days, first-time visitors have been stopping by.
Late Sept. 22nd, as the day’s races were winding down, a few dozen people milled around the property, snapping photos of the horses near the finish line and wandering through the track’s cavernous grandstand and concession area.
“It’s so strange walking through here,” said Paul Christie, a Somerville resident who was with his wife and two young boys. “It’s like one of those post-apocalyptic movies where you walk through the city and everything is as it was, but no one is there.”
Industry experts say the track’s closing will be felt across the country. One less track means fewer owners producing thoroughbreds, fewer jobs for lower-skilled horse workers and fewer bettors for simulcast races.
“Losing Suffolk is kind of like wiping out a region,” says Christopher Scherf, Executive Vice President of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations. “You’ll lose a good portion of the New England and Boston bettors. They’ll leave the sport and become slots players, poker players or fantasy football players. …That’s not good for the industry as a whole, especially when you’re looking around the country at how we survive.”
The Maryland-based association says there are roughly 100 thoroughbred tracks left in the U.S. At one point, there were as many as 17 racing venues in New England alone, local officials say.
Massachusetts gambling regulators scheduled to meet Sept. 25 at the Hynes Convention Center promise to look for ways to preserve the racing industry and its approximately 1,200 permanent and seasonal jobs.
But Suffolk Downs’ owners, which include prominent casino developer Richard Fields, say they’re not holding out for an 11th hour reprieve. After losing nearly $60 million over the last seven years, they’re eyeing other development options for the property.
In the meantime, horse owners and others working at Suffolk Downs’ stables on a recent weekday afternoon said they face an uncertain future.
Kevin McCarthy, a Pembroke resident who has owned and trained racehorses for only a few years, says he’ll send some of his horses south for the winter to compete, as he normally does. Beyond that, he’s not sure.
“The shame of it is there are horsemen here that are as good as horsemen from around the country,” he said. “They’re just New Englanders, so they stayed here.”