It was a homecoming party at Suffolk Downs Sept. 5, as local horsemen who had dispersed to tracks along the East Coast and racing fans from across New England returned to support the first of three racing festival days this year and celebrate the restoration of live racing at the 80-year-old racetrack.
The sunny disposition of those on track was the polar opposite of the one here last Oct. 4 for the 2014 meet’s closing day, when a dismal crowd figured they were witnessing the bitter end of live racing after the ownership group had announced that meet would be Suffolk’s last.
But then track management and the New England affiliate of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association worked for months to be able to offer the three days in 2015, with the next to be held Oct. 3 and Oct. 31.
“This was a spectacular reception for the return of racing. It was as good as we could have expected,” said Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle. “Obviously, the mood on Oct. 4 last year was funereal given the circumstances. This was a much more celebratory mood. The horsemen who have returned are having a wonderful homecoming. The point of today was to throw a party and welcome back racing.”
More than 10,000 enthusiastic fans packed the clubhouse and apron that featured a dozen food tucks, craft beer, and family activities, plus a 13-race card featuring three Massachusetts-bred stakes races with a $50,000 purse for each and two steeplechase races.
With $507,500 in total purses for the day up for the taking, 111 horses were entered by the local horsemen, as well as by many nationally-prominent out-of-state trainers, including Steve Asmussen, Christophe Clement, Gary Contessa, Gregg Sacco, David Jacobson, and Derek Ryan.
The Monmouth Park-based Ryan sent two horses and successfully book-ended his day with a win in the first race with Post a Joke and in the last with Dubai Time, who were both ridden by Armando Ayuso.
“The money is good, so we took a shot shipping from New Jersey,” Ryan said after the first race, a $25,000 maiden claiming affair, with 6-1 Post a Joke. “I sent two up here and now the trip has paid for itself. “You can’t beat this deal. We’ll be back for the next two days if we can get in.”
Bill Sienkewicz, one of Suffolk’s top conditioners in recent years who now competes at Delaware Park and Tampa Bay Downs, came back with three runners.
“It’s wonderful to be home and see so many friends. It’s a true joy to be here. This is a wonderful crowd that came out today to enjoy the races,” he said “I’m barely scraping by, but I’m still firing. I’d like to come back for the next two days and imagine I will, depending on what races they write.”
Lou Raffetto, the consultant to the NEHBPA, and Racing Secretary Tom Creel were able to attract the participants that filled the card. Purses were paid back to fifth place, and owners whose horses wound up sixth to last got an $800 award, while trainers picked up a $200 bonus for each runner. Moreover, shipping costs were subsidized.
“I can’t be happier with today’s event in every respect,” Raffetto said. “To lay out out a blueprint and have it work out the way it did is very satisfying. I think we can only grow from here.”
Although the food and beverage offerings had plenty of takers, the action at the betting windows was light. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission approved the track’s request to reduce takeout across the board to 15% Sept. 3, but the change doesn’t go into effect until the Oct. 3 card.
“That’s part of us racing on a Saturday, and it’s not as if our signal was in high demand in other parts of the country,” Tuttle said. “The point was to throw a party and welcome back racing. If this can help provide a transition for the horsemen, we look at what’s next and they look at what’s next, that’s good for everybody.”
Despite the possibility of future interest from The Stronach Group in leasing Suffolk Downs—as long as critical changes are implemented and conditions are met—the NEHBPA and Tuttle have already begun talks on a 2016 meet of a longer duration.
But Suffolk’s ownership group has not done an about-face on its plans to develop the property for real estate, so the NEHBPA, which reiterated it will entertain talks with The Stronach Group or any operator who wants to step up, is marching forward with its plans to form a non-profit entity to build and own its own racetrack.
“We have to steer the ship,” NEHBPA president Anthony Spadea said. “We have to be the leaders of the racing program, whether it be here or at another location. We are doing everything in our power to bring live racing back (for a full meet) as soon as we can.”
Raffetto added, “We’re willing to talk with anybody at any time, but we continue to move forward with our plans, so that our fate is in our own hands. The whole point of four weeks from today and eight weeks from today is to show the public that, done in a proper fashion, racing in New England can be fun, exciting, and successful. This sets the stage for what we want to do in the future.
“Hopefully, the state legislature and the Massachusetts Gaming Commission take (note) of what was done here today and is receptive to the ideas the NEHBPA has put forth.”
George Brown, the chairman of the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association, was thrilled with the day.
Four-time open-company winner Miss Wilby was the dominant winner against males in the African Prince Stakes. The 1-9 favorite, who is trained by former New Englander Marcus Vitali, drew off to win by four lengths under Tammi Piermarini in 1:12.47 for six furlongs.
Piermarini, the third all-time leading female rider in history by wins, who is now based at Parx Racing, also won the Isadorable Stakes with 2-1 favorite Navy Nurse. The Patricia Moeley homebred and 2013 Isadorable winner closed strongly late to win by a half-length in 1:12.04 for six furlongs.
Theresa Horkey’s Worth the Worry, sent off at 1-2 in the field of eight, made light work of the six furlong Rise Jim Stakes to win by 12 1/4 lengths in a sprite 1:10.74 with Jose Baez in the irons for trainer Jonathan Buckley.
“This is a great day for New England racing and for our program,” said Brown, whose Sociano’s Phantom and Lucky Sociano were second and third, respectively, in the African Prince. “It goes to show you that all we have to do is put on a wonderful program like this and people will come out and support live racing.”