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As The Horse Racing Industry Eyes The Berkshires, Questions Swirl

Facebook: Great Barrington Fairgrounds

Berkshire leaders are considering the return of horseracing to Great Barrington. The possibility is raising a number of questions.

The long dormant fairgrounds in Great Barrington could once again hear the thunder of hooves as its owners pursue an offer from Sterling Suffolk Racecourse – which operated the now-shuttered Suffolk Downs in East Boston. The company wants to spend between $15 million and $20 million to hold races in the Southern Berkshire County community in the fall of 2020, according to figures from Great Barrington’s town manager citied in the Berkshire Edge. But all of that is contingent on changes to state law. Sterling Suffolk has not and is unable to officially apply to the town for a license to operate under current guidelines.

“Well the conversations are less specifically about Great Barrington and more about legislation relative to the regulation of horse racing and wagering," said State Senator Adam Hinds of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden District. He is the co-sponsor of Senate Bill 101, one of a number of bills concerning horseracing and sports betting being considered on Beacon Hill.

“We have a couple of different issues at stake," said Hinds. "One is a horse racing bill, a separate one is simulcasting and allowing that – we’ve basically been doing a year-to-year renewal. And then in the third category is probably the big picture, which is sports betting in general, which as a result of a Supreme Court case, now states across the country are figuring out what they’re going to do in that area.”

The Democrat says he thinks the odds of the new regulations passing are “pretty high,” with legislators posed to take up discussions around the bills once the session resumes in the fall.

“A bill was filed in January, and then it was sent to a committee – in this case, Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure," explained Hinds. "They’ve had a hearing, they’re considering the bill now and that will take some time until they make a decision until when they vote on that on a committee level, and then it will go to a second committee, and then before it goes – if it does at all – before the full Senate and House separately, and then on to the governor. And so each of those are opportunities to engage and tweak the legislation, and each of those take time, so we’re in this for the long haul.”

What impact horse racing could have on Great Barrington is at the center of local conversation.

“Well, it’s clearly an aging industry that’s facing problems, and that’s why it’s a shell of its former self even in Massachusetts," said Democratic State Representative Smitty Pignatelli, who represents Great Barrington. “The key thing to consider is simulcasting, which is where the money is in gambling, requires by current state law, one day of live racing. So I think they’re looking at Great Barrington as one of a couple of options that they could actually do the one day of live racing. So I think that the permitting authority will be the selectboard in Great Barrington, so the ultimate decision will be made by them, but the revitalization of the fairgrounds is something that’s been talked about for decades now since it closed, and this is one small piece of that. But it’s really up to the down, and very little to do with the state.”

The town’s fairgrounds were seriously damaged by a tornado in 1995, and last held races there in 1998. Pignatelli says any redevelopment of it will be subject to the town’s bylaws.

“There’s environmental issues, it’s in the flood plain, so I think that restricts housing from being there,” said Pignatelli.

He says talk on Beacon Hill is much more focused on another gambling question.

“Online gaming is the big topic which we’ll probably be discussing later this year or early next year," said the state representative. "The U.S. Supreme Court has granted online gaming to take place, and I think Massachusetts needs to look at that as a huge revenue stream.”

The county’s business contingent is keeping an eye on how horse racing has impacted other regional communities – namely, how it could bring more visitors to the area in shoulder seasons like the fall.

“Saratoga is certainly a peer region of the Northeast of ours, they attract a lot of visitors – and from New York City, so we actually share some common audience," said Jonathan Butler, the president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the county’s economic development agency. “There continues to be a lot of expanded economic growth and investment there, but they’re also dealing with pushback from some of the opponents to the racing industry. So it definitely behooves us in the Berkshires to pay attention to that. There’s some good questions being asked about the safety of horses that are actively participating in horse racing and thoroughbred racing.”

Despite those questions, Butler says that if there’s a way to reconcile them with more economic growth, the county should pursue it.

But others are less optimistic about the possibility.

“The Berkshire Humane Society’s mission is to ensure the compassionate care, treatment, and placement of companion animals while promoting and improving the welfare of animals through education and outreach," said Cynthia Barlett, the president of the board of directors of the Berkshire Humane Society. She says that while the BHS hasn’t taken an official stance on horseracing, it is monitoring the situation.

“What I can say is that when animals and gambling come together, it’s usually the animals that lose,” Bartlett told WAMC.

Monday night, the Great Barrington selectboard will continue discussion of horse racing at its 6 o’clock meeting with input from Hinds and Pignatelli.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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