As locals raise questions about the potential return of horse racing to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the company eyeing the town is trying to answer them.
It’s been over 20 years since the ground at the Great Barrington fairgrounds felt the thunder of hooves. Now, with talk of racing returning, residents like Pam Youngquist have a host of concerns about what it could mean for the Southern Berkshire community.
“The fairgrounds itself are on a flood plain next to a federally recognized endangered waterway," said Youngquist. "There are people who have great issue with the animal cruelty of thoroughbred horse racing. There are people who are tremendously concerned about traffic and infrastructure, particularly for the businesses where many of us shop on a daily basis – that being Big Y and Guido’s across from that location – as well as what it will be like to have gigantic horse rigs going through downtown Great Barrington.”
The company exploring the Great Barrington fairgrounds is trying to allay those fears.
“We’re a racing and simulcasting company, we have been in business – Suffolk Downs itself has been in business – since 1935," said Chip Tuttle. "We continue to operate year-round simulcasting on the property in East Boston and Revere. We have had live racing there since 1992.”
Tuttle is Suffolk Downs’ chief operating officer. The company failed to acquire a Boston area casino license in 2014, and the track had been losing money every year since 2007. A 2015 law that enabled Suffolk Downs to simulcast year-round with just a single day of live racing allowed the company to stay alive. It has since sold its Eastern Massachusetts properties and has been looking for a new home. Tuttle says he was at the Great Barrington fairgrounds back in the late ’90’s when it last hosted racing.
“I started crisscrossing the state looking for other possible venues for racing and – I think it was April of May of last year – that I actually went to the fairgrounds again, and lo and behold, there’s a racetrack and a grandstand and barns and lots of the things that you need to conduct horse racing,” he told WAMC.
Suffolk Downs began its talks with the town, and reached out to the property owner to reach an option agreement. Tuttle estimates that it will take at least $15 million to refurbish and restore the fairgrounds for racing. Now, he says the company is waiting on decisions to be made in the state legislature to see how possible the move would be.
“The Massachusetts Gaming Commission has a bill that would allow it to issue different types of licenses, and would allow the resource development fund – which is a fund that was created by the gaming law in Massachusetts," said Tuttle. "There are proceeds from gross gaming revenue from the slot parlor in Plainville, Massachusetts and the two casinos – MGM and Encore – that go into a fund for purses, the Racehorse Development Fund.”
The bill would allow the commission to open up the use of purse money for a number of things, including capital improvements. Another bill is co-sponsored by Democratic State Senator Adam Hinds, who represents the Berkshires among other counties in his district. It would allow for multi-year licensing and for wider allowances within those licenses, letting Suffolk Downs conduct sports betting alongside year-round simulcast operations in Boston as well as hold races in Great Barrington.
“There’s lots of steps between thinking it’s a good idea maybe to bring back horse racing at the fairgrounds to it actually happening,” said the COO.
Tuttle is also answering questions posed by Great Barrington residents. As far as traffic on Route 7 – especially during the peak summer season – Tuttle says local leaders have already made those concerns clear.
“They indicated a preference that if we are going to race, that we do it in the shoulder season – September, October, which is fine with us,” he said.
The industry itself is facing headwinds, with protests across the nation over horse deaths and mistreatment. Tuttle – himself a horse owner – described those protests as emerging from “really fringe animal rights groups.”
“Suffolk Downs has a record that we’re very proud of in terms of safety, welfare, aftercare," he said. "We were the first track in the country in 2008 to institute a strict anti-slaughter policy.”
Acknowledging the substantial environmental issues any fairgrounds development would face – it abuts the Housatonic river and wetlands – Tuttle says Suffolk Downs is ready for the challenge.
“We’ve got experience doing that in East Boston and Revere over the last several years as well,” he told WAMC.
Lastly, Tuttle addressed a concern lodged by Great Barrington selectboard member Leigh Davis, who says diving into Senate Bill 101 led to her “finding what I perceive as a legislative loophole that Suffolk could take advantage of in terms of bypassing local approval because seemingly, they have a commercial license that was granted to Great Barrington in 1998.”
The COO says there’s nothing in the bill that suggests that, and that the company has no intention of cutting out local voices.
“We’ve hired consultants and engaged permanent consultants to help us understand what local permits we need in addition to whatever state permits we might need if we’re going to go ahead with this plan," said Tuttle. "We need at least two or three local permits. Since the second day I showed up in Great Barrington we’ve engaged with the town and tried to have an open dialogue about all this and we fully expect that we’re going to require municipal approvals if this is going to go forward.”
Like Great Barrington selectboard chair Steven Bannon, Tuttle says he thinks a wider community conversation is warranted – eventually.
“Doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a conversation that has six or seven or 60 to 70 hypotheticals in it,” said the COO.