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Experts: Closure Of Suffolk Downs Could Have Impact On New York Racing

New England’s only thoroughbred racetrack is scheduled to close in less than two weeks, the latest sign of a sport in a national decline. Experts on New York’s still-buoyant racing industry are weighing in on what the closure could mean for the Empire State.

The last day of racing at Boston-area racetrack Suffolk Downs is set for October 4th. The track was slated for closure this week, but officials postponed the shuttering. Upon its closure, it could mark the end of thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts and the rest of New England.

Suffolk Downs failed to obtain a Massachusetts casino gambling license. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission recently awarded the license to Wynn Resorts in Everett instead. As at other struggling tracks, casino gambling was seen as a necessary lifeline to prop up the horse racing side.

In New York, gambling revenues from VLT machines at Aqueduct provided a much-needed shot in the arm for the New York Racing Association, which used the money to fund track improvements, increase purses, and strengthen breeding programs.

Longtime Capital Region horse racing journalist Mike Kane said if the casino license had been awarded to Suffolk Downs, a similar model could have kept racing afloat in the Bay State.

“Owners of the track had been investing in the track for these last several years hoping to get a license so they could have a casino and have a racetrack, too," said Kane. "Unfortunately for them, the license for Boston did not go to them, and that spells the end of Suffolk Downs."

Jeff Cannizzo, Executive Director of the Saratoga Springs-based New York Thoroughbred Breeders Inc., said the closure could benefit racing in New York, as trainers and breeders from Massachusetts could come across state lines.

“You have people that are both horsemen, so trainers and owners who raced at Suffolk, they're going to need somewhere to go. At the same time their breeding industry - they're going to need somewhere else to go as well to stay in business," said Cannizzo.

Cannizzo said that the Massachusetts breeding industry over the past several years has been in decline, but there’s still a population to make an impact in New York.

“Back in ’92 they had 136 mares that were bred to just Massachusettes stallions...last year there was only 45. So their breeding industry has shrunk significantly in the past two decades, but I think that shoe people that still want to be involved, there's a chance they're going to be in New York State."

Rick Violette, President of the New York State Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association, and a NYRA board member, said it’s unlikely there will be an influx of horses from Suffolk Downs affecting NYRA tracks at Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct, which run races with higher stakes, but there could be an impact on tracks more similar to Suffolk Downs.

“There could be some impact at Aqueduct for the winter racing, but I think there could be some push next year that maybe some trainers and owners might venture to Finger Lakes.

Cannizzo also said Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack could benefit.

"I think this could be positive for Finger Lakes in western New York, in addition to the NYRA circuit."

Violette predicted the local economy in East Boston and Revere will take a hit from the loss of Suffolk Downs, and that the closure of the track is a blow to the racing community.

"People's lives are going to be transformed," said Violette.

Suffolk Downs has operated for the past 79 years, holding its first race in 1935.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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