Small Track Closing Deals a Major Blow to Horse Racing

slot machineby Charles Simon, Thoroughbred Trainer

This weekend in thoroughbred racing many important stakes were run throughout the country and, if you include the Arc de Triomphe card, throughout the world. The electric return of Wise Dan, the emergence of potential Derby stars, a Hong Kong shipper taking down grade 1 California sprinters and Treve returning to form to defend her title in the Arc, all big events. However, in my opinion  the story that will ultimately have the biggest impact on racing in this country heading into the future is Suffolk Downs closing.

While it has never been a top tier track in my lifetime Suffolk Downs was the last holdout in one of racing’s historical strong areas, New England. Surely most of us don’t follow Suffolk closely, don’t bet much on their signal and with the demise of the Mass Cap, they didnt really even have a signature day anymore. The horses that are stabled there will filter into lower level tracks throughout the country and the horsemen and jockeys will mostly relocate as well. However we now have another major metropolitan area (Boston’s metro area was in excess of 4 1/2 million people as of 2010) that has no exposure to live racing, and exposure to live racing is the only way that racing will ever be able to grow its fan/bettor base.

Growing up in Saratoga in a far less electronically connected era, we knew about racing at Suffolk and Rockingham and the fairs. New England shippers were always respected when they showed up at the Spa. Those sharp shippers have been few and far between in recent years as the New England circuit slowly eroded into just Suffolk when Rockingham closed and its hard to call the recently concluded final meet as anything less than C minus competition.

But an entire area of our country, a heavily populated area full of sports crazy people (however misguided Red Sox, Patriot and Celtics fans are) is now without any link to racing which is not a positive anyway you look at it.

Gaming is part of the deal now and while it has its obvious downsides the facts are that racing outside of a very few notable exceptions depend on it. A recent Blood-Horse article noted that 35% of the total purse account in North America was the result of gaming. The fact that we in racing have little control over the gaming end of the equation is a scary proposition. Look at Suffolk as the politicians and elected boards in Boston ignored racing, its tradition, its rich history, the ancillary benefits and awarded the only gaming license to an outside group. I suppose now might be the time to note that Penn National Gaming actually HAS a slots license to build a parlor in Plainville, MA but the odds that they have any interest in racing there is a billion to one.

Racing has moved towards big days with cards stacked with graded stakes like yesterday, and it is hard to argue with their success both handle-wise and buzz created. However the Suffolk Downs of the world, the day to day racing on Thursday afternoons and winter racing have their place and work to help create fans that can eventually come to appreciate the Wise Dan’s and Treve’s of the world. Owners from large cities like Boston might become really big owners like Centennial farms after having gotten their feet wet at a place like Suffolk or Rockingham. Trainers like Ron Dandy and Vinny Blengs and Mike Aro and Tim and Kathy Ritvo and Bob Dibona and John Rigatterri and Ned Allard and George Handy and Karl Grusmark and Mike Gorham and Charlie Assimakopoulos and Bill Perry and Bob and Steve Klesaris and David Vivian and countless others that I missed started or had a big portion of their career kicked off in New England.

Nowadays, they are building ridiculous tracks in ridiculous places with ridiculous names like Belterra Downs and Mahoning Valley because we have roped racinos’ into having to have us in some way shape or form. Nine Horse of the Year competed over the years at Suffolk Downs including John Henry, Seabiscuit, Cigar, Skip Away, War Admiral, Whirlaway and Assault. Real Quiet, Riva Ridge, Creme Fraiche, Mom’s Command, Skip Trial, Include, Waquoit, Discovery, Gun Bow. Think Mahoning Valley will ever have one horse of that caliber grace their backside? We keep losing places like Boston and perhaps Chicago is next and replacing them with Erie, PA and Dayton, OH. Only in racing would our leadership not see the folly in believing that this is OK.

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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is a 19-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 of the NHC twice. A former executive with and a member of the NHC Players’ Committee, Rich is a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program and is founder of, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.

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