-By John Lynds
It’s no secret around here that Suffolk Downs Racetrack in East Boston has seen better days. The finically strappedthoroughbred racetrack has been bleeding money each year holding out hope that a casino gaming bill will be the racetrack’s saving grace to shore up horse racing and the track’s revenue.
Committed to keeping the racetrack up and running, ownership has spent millions over the track’s revenue to pay out purses and keep horse racing a vital part of the tracks future.
However, in a surprise move, New England chapter of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (NEHBPA) voted to block Suffolk Downs’ simulcast signal from races occurring at Aqueduct in New York.
The move comes as negotiations between Suffolk Downs and NCHBPA broke down over funding purses for the 2011 race season.
According NEHBPA Suffolk Downs proposed to fund purses at the minimum amount that the racetrack believes is required under Massachusetts law.
In a press release sent to the East Boston Times, NEHBPA said it disagrees with Suffolk’s position as to requirements and believes that state law requires Suffolk Downs to negotiate with the NEHBPA in good faith.
“Last year, Suffolk Downs refused to enter into any meaningful negotiations relative to a purse contract for 2010. Despite the lack of a contract, the meet proceeded in reliance upon the representations of Suffolk Downs that a purse structure consistent with the 2009 meet would be maintained and that it would negotiate with the NEHBPA in the event it determined it was necessary to reduce purses,” said the release.
Over the past four years Suffolk Downs ownership voluntarily paid more than $3 million per year over its revenue to cover purses. Over the last four racing seasons, this has benefited local horsemen and promoted higher quality of racing.
Suffolk Downs’ owners have lost in excess of $40 million over the last four years with the majority of the losses are related to track operations.
Suffolk Downs’ Chief Financial Officer, Chip Tuttle said Suffolk Downs projects to generate $7.5 million in purses in 2011 but the NEHBPA indicated it does not believe its members will return to race at Suffolk Downs in 2011 for $75,000 per day in purses ($7.5 million over 100 days). Suffolk Downs offered to pay $100,000 per day in purses over 67-76 days to keep the horsemen’s interest but NEHBPA demanded Suffolk Downs commit to $10.6 million in purses for the 2011 season.
Tuttle, said he was surprised by NEHBPA’s move to demand owners to again pay out of pocket millions of dollars to cover purses and then vote to block simulcasts from New York–a move some see as a way to strong arm Suffolk Downs back to the negotiation table.
“While I sympathize with NEHBPA wanting to race for higher purses I can’t continue to ask Suffolk Downs’ ownership to continue funding millions of dollars over our revenue for purses,” said Tuttle. “I don’t know how this benefits anyone, I wish we could fund higher purses but blocking simulcasting signals from Aqueduct doesn’t benefit anyone here because it certainly doesn’t help us generate money to pay purses.”
Tuttle added that given Suffolk Downs’ current business conditions it makes no sense to fund purses above the racetrack’s revenue for another season and still believes casino legislation would solve both Suffolk Downs and NEHPA’s woes.
“We were so close last year (with expanded gaming legislation) and ownership is still committed to thoroughbred racing here in East Boston and the state,” said Tuttle. “But for us to be able to compete with other tracks on the East Coast that have expanded gaming and can pay higher purses we need expanded gaming to come to Suffolk Downs for horse racing to thrive here.”