Massachusetts Revival

  By Bill Heller    Is it coincidence or destiny that Suffolk Downs’ chief operating officer Chip Tuttle became a marathon runner? Because he’s been in for the long haul, trying to keep Thoroughbred racing alive in his native state of Massachusetts for decades.    While nagging injuries have put his marathon running on hold, Tuttle has been moving full-throttle forward to on the horseracing end of things by reviving the Great Barrington Fair, which has been dormant for 20 years.    Live racing at Suffolk Downs, the last Thoroughbred track still operating in what was once a vibrant racing state, has been on life support since 2014 when it lost a bid as a casino site. Instead, a casino was granted to Wynn Resorts’ Encore Boston Harbor in Everett, 15 minutes from Suffolk Downs. It’s scheduled to open in 2019.    Full racing seasons at Suffolk have been pared to a handful of weekend festivals with food trucks, live music, family activities, a weekend jockey challenge, horsemen’s shipping charges covered, and exorbitant purses averaging more than $50,000 per race daily. This year, $10,000 claimers raced for a purse of $41,000 on June 9th and June 10th.    Two of this year’s three festivals remain, on July 7-8 and August 4-5, and another may be added in the fall. The weekends were spaced out so that owners with Massachusetts-breds could compete in three different stakes during the year.     But that’s it, especially if Amazon decides to locate its second headquarters at the 161-acre Suffolk Downs property which Boston-based HYM Investment Group purchased for $155 million in May, 2017. A decision is expected by Amazon, whose headquarters are in Seattle, Washington, by October. If Amazon chooses another site, Suffolk could squeeze in one more year of festivals.     How long can a patient last on life support? There are only two possible conclusions: the patient recovers or the patient dies.    Here is the maddening part: millions of dollars remain for purses if they can find a place to race, thanks to the Race Horse Development Fund implemented in 2011 to give Thoroughbred and Standardbred horsemen, breeders, and backstretch workers revenue from the state’s increasingly successful casinos: 80% to purses, 16% to breeders, and 4% to backstretch welfare. That fund was almost wiped out last July, but despite the push of some state legislators, it was included in the state’s 2018 budget.    But “the fund doesn’t do the horsemen any good if they don’t have a place to run,” Tuttle said.     A renovated track at Great Barrington, which could open as early as next year, could be the last option. The track is still there; the grandstand and the unique tunnel to the infield remain. The background of the beautiful Berkshires changing leaves during fall racing is just as awesome. And the love of racing has never wavered.    “I’m hopeful it’s going to happen,” said George Brown, the chairman of the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association who’s been a trainer, breeder, and owner for decades. “It’d be great for the horsemen because they’d have a place to race. Right now, they’ve got no place to train and no place to race.”    Asked how horsemen have survived, Brown said, “I’ve been trying to figure that out for years.”    Thoroughbred horsemen weren’t always scrambling to stay in business in New England, where tracks like Suffolk Downs in Boston, Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, and Narragansett in Rhode Island once thrived, and Green Mountain in Vermont and a fall fair circuit in Massachusetts at Great Barrington, Northampton, Marshfield, Brockton, Weymouth, and Berkshire Downs serviced less-accomplished Thoroughbreds.     Suffolk Downs opened in 1935 and survived a two-year gap in operation from 1990-92. The track’s signature stakes, the Massachusetts Handicap, known simply as the Mass Cap, was captured by such stars as Seabiscuit (1937), Whirlaway (1942), Cigar (1995 and 1996), and Skip Away (1997 and 1998). Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Funny Cide finished second by a head to Offlee Wild in the 2004 Mass Cap. The Cap wasn’t run from 1990-94, nor in 2003, 2005, and 2006. Commentator won the last Mass Cap in 2008.     Suffolk Downs’ most famous visitors had only two legs. And there were four visitors -- in 1966, the Beatles performed before an estimated 25,000 fans.    “The Beatles played at Shea Stadium; everybody knows that. But they also played at Suffolk Downs,” New York-based trainer Gary Contessa said. “I thought it was the coolest thing. I have a ticket stub that I bought at auction framed.”    Contessa shipped in for Suffolk’s first day of racing in 2018 and won a $12,500 claimer with The Two Nancy’s, ridden by New York regular Dylan Davis. “They pay our shipping,” Contessa said. “The purses are good. I’m all for it. I feel honored to race there. It’s like racing at Belmont and Saratoga.”    Mike Stidham, who was the leading trainer at Suffolk’s 2017 meet with eight winners, also shipped in from his base in Fair Hill, Maryland, to win a race this year with Dylan Davis, who rode Crownstone to a victory in a $47,000 maiden turf race. “It makes all the sense in the world to go up there,” Stidham said. “There were races that fit our horses. The purses were good. So why not go?”    More than 9,200 fans decided to go to Suffolk Downs’ first day of live racing, June 9th, which dovetailed beautifully on the simulcast of undefeated Justify’s successful Belmont Stakes victory to complete the Triple Crown. “It was a great day of racing,” Tuttle said.    It’s hard to imagine that anyone enjoyed the first day of live racing at Suffolk Downs more than Patricia Moseley, the former chairwoman of the track, who has maintained the family’s homebred stable for more than 40 years, the last 20 after the death of her husband Jim, Suffolk’s former chairman. Moseley’s Dream Doctor won a $52,500 optional claimer and her Princess Dream won the $50,000 Isadorable Stakes for the second consecutive year.    On the same afternoon at Belmont Park, Moseley’s La Moneda, a full sister to Dream Doctor, won the first race, a $70,000 New York-bred allowance/optional $40,000 grass claimer. Then her homebred four-year-old filly Proctor’s Ledge finished second by three-quarters of a length to A Raving Beauty in the $700,000 Grade 1 Just a Game Stakes at Belmont Park. This accomplished turf filly has five victories, three seconds, and one third from 13 career starts and earnings of more than $700,000.    Three victories and a close second in a Grade 1 stakes by four homebreds in a single afternoon is quite an achievement, yet Moseley has felt the pain of the decline of live racing at Suffolk Downs, too. As Moseley told Ben Massam in a Thoroughbred Daily News feature last year, “I have a farm in New York because things got so discouraging in Massachusetts. You breed a lot of Mass-breds, and suddenly there’s no racing.”     On June 10th, the second day of live racing, attendance dipped to 4,800. “It’s been harder and harder to gear up for these days given the uncertain status of racing in Massachusetts the last few years,” Tuttle said.    Tuttle, now 55, didn’t seem headed for a career in Thoroughbred racing growing up in Salem, a city of 44,000 16 miles north of Boston. His dad, Paul, was an electrician for the city of Salem; his mom, Mary Lou, went back to work as an accountant after raising Chip -- whose given name is Paul Jr. -- and his two younger brothers, Greg, an actor and an accountant in Los Angeles, and Mark, an attorney in Salem. “I don’t think I saw a horse until I was in high school,” Tuttle said. “I was one of the guys reading the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald sports section. I skipped over horseracing. I wanted to be a baseball writer.”    He thanks his wife’s grandmother for taking him to a racetrack for the first time when he was 27. “She was visiting, and she loved the track,” Tuttle said. That visit to Rockingham Park changed his life after he got a job as a sportswriter for the Salem News.    “I was assigned a story on Jim Moseley because he was in our coverage area,” Tuttle said. “He wanted to re-open Suffolk Downs. That was it. I started covering his efforts to re-open the track in 1990 and 1991.”    Moseley succeeded, and live racing returned to Suffolk Downs on January 1st, 1992, before a crowd of 15,212.    “They needed someone to be the PR man in 1992,” Tuttle said.    He’s been there ever since, but there were gaps. He worked for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, and in 1998 was hired by CTP, a full-service advertising and public relations agency whose clients now include the Breeders’ Cup, TVG, the Boston Red Sox, and Microsoft. Tuttle still works at CTP while serving simultaneously as Suffolk Downs COO.    In the early ‘90s, Suffolk thrived thanks to extensive renovation and the good work of Lou Raffetto, who is now a Suffolk Downs consultant and director of racing, and his assistant Ted Nicholson. They helped bring back the Mass Cap after a five-year absence from 1990-94. “It was a great way to learn about racing,” Tuttle said.    Later, he said, “I went back to Suffolk Downs for the push for casinos.”    Casino gambling in Massachusetts was approved in 2011, and Suffolk Downs partnered with Caesars Entertainment Corporation in an effort to build a $1 billion resort on the site. The partnership dissolved in 2012 due to concerns from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission about Caesars’ relationship with a company allegedly connected to Russian mobsters.    Regardless, Suffolk Downs, which was whittling its live racing season, bid for the casino license available to one entity in the Greater Boston Market, but in November of 2103, East Boston voters rejected the casino proposal, 4,281 to 3,253.    Suffolk had lost the race it couldn’t afford to lose, and on October 4th, 2014, it held what was thought to be its last day of live racing.    “We were going to shut down in 2014, and the horsemen came to us and said, ‘We have nowhere left to run,’” Tuttle said.    A plan was born. “We had the Race Fund,” Tuttle said. “We got some changes in the legislation. We changed the requirement for simulcasting from 60 live days of racing to one day. That allowed us to stay open.”    Briefly. There were three days of racing in 2015, eight in 2016, and eight in 2017.     You can’t feed a family on three, six or, eight days of racing. Horsemen were left with three options, none particularly inviting: move your family to another venue; move your stable to another venue and hope your family could continue with a part-time husband and dad; or get out of the business. “It was a very, very difficult period,” said trainer Matthew Clark, a 61-year-old, fourth-generation horseman from England who is on the board of the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA). “You have to look at it in a wider picture. Suffolk started reducing dates, 110 to 80 to 65. That was very difficult for everybody. You have the same overhead. A lot of people got out of the business. When the track closed, there was a few people who moved on. People went to Parx and Laurel and they’ve done well. They’re all good horsemen.”    Clark is one of them. “When Boston closed in 2014, my family moved to Finger Lakes,” he said. “We’ve had three good years here.”    He hopes racing in Massachusetts can be saved, but he’s also realistic. “We’ve had so many disappointments the last three, four years,” he said. “Whenever these projects are put forward, there tends to be a lot of cynicism.”    Trainer Jay Bernardini, 51, who is the vice-president of the New England HBPA, chose a different option, moving his stable to Mountaineer Park in West Virginia and also racing at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Ohio, while his wife Carol, a lifelong horsewoman who works for the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) at Logan Airport, and their only child, 18-year-old Kyle, who just graduated from high school and is joining the National Guard before going to Bridgewater State, remained behind at their home in Lynn, Massachusetts, not far from Suffolk Downs.    If any horseman or horsewoman suffered with Suffolk’s closing in 2014, it was Bernardini. “I started going to Suffolk and Rockingham in the ‘80s, and I was the leading trainer at Suffolk in 2014 when they closed the live meet,” he said. “It was bittersweet. It took my whole career to win it, and it was closing. In 2014. We were optimistic we could do something. Our first idea was something like the Kentucky Horse Park with farmer’s markets. It never got out of first gear.”       His family survived his absence. “Basically, I’m a transient dad,” he said. “It’s difficult, but it hasn’t separated us. A lot of trainers lost their families because of the industry. We’re a very close unit. My wife is the rock. She works full time and takes care of the house and does work for the stable when we race in the festivals at Suffolk.”    He is cautiously optimistic Massachusetts racing can be born again at Great Barrington, which would still be a three-hour drive from his home: “I think there’s a very good chance. There was a facility there. The infrastructure is there. It’s not ideal, but any racing in Massachusetts keeps the ball rolling. It’s better than the alternative, because the alternative is zero.”    Anthony Spadea, the 75-year-old president of the New England HPBA, estimates that 55-60% of the state’s trainers have been racing elsewhere since 2014. But reviving racing at Great Barrington would do more than help horsemen. “When racing was good, people had a lot of farms in Massachusetts,” he said. “At one time, we had an excess of 100 Thoroughbred farms, and farmers were making a great living, maintaining and boarding mares and stallions. We were creating jobs and keeping open space. When racing was stopped here, those farms closed. I want to keep people working. I want them off food stamps. Keep them off welfare. We have to keep the industry going until someone comes along who says this can work with sports betting. Without racing, no one benefits.”    On May 23rd, a deal to return live racing to the Great Barrington Fair Grounds was announced, and it was a reason for hope. Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, LLC, the company which runs Suffolk Downs’ live racing and simulcasting in a lease agreement with the owner, reached an agreement with Fairgrounds Realty LLC and the Fair Grounds Community Redevelopment Project, Inc., the entities that own the Fairgrounds, for a long-term lease of the racetrack property to commence racing as early as next year.    With the support of the New England HBPA and the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association, Suffolk Downs would refurbish the fairgrounds property and operate a commercial race meet while continuing to operate simulcasting at Suffolk Downs.    That would mean changes in the current racing legislation that expires at the end of July.    This potential industry-saving venture could only happen with the cooperation of Bart Elsbach, a landscape artist and farmer, and his wife, Janet Reich, a writer and teacher. They live in Sheffield, four miles from the fairgrounds. Culminating a 15-year pursuit, they purchased the 57-acre Barrington Fairgrounds for $800,000 in January, 2013.    “Honestly, we didn’t want to buy it, we wanted to protect it,” Elsbach, 56, said. “Twenty-five years ago we started working with the community, basically asking the question, ‘Would commercial development work?’ The answer was ‘No.’ We started talking to people. From that we learned two things: people had pride and a sense of connection. The property was abandoned after 1998, damaged by a tornado, heavily vandalized and overrun. We said we’ll do everything we can to build it into a wonderful community resource. We had a vision we shared: people walking their dogs, a farmers’ market. We thought it was a wonderful idea. The fair was the longest running one in the United States. The fair was an iconic memory of the past.”    He believes Thoroughbred racing could be a future he and his wife have envisioned for the fairgrounds. He said, “It would protect the site from commercial development. It would have a low impact environmentally, and it’s historic, something that has a lot of meaning for people in the area and outside the area for generations. It’s a very good opportunity for open space. It fits a lot of our criteria. And it’d be good for Western Massachusetts. It’s sort of the gateway to the Berkshires.”    Elsbach has gone to Tuttle to learn about horseracing. “He and his family have a personal interest in horses and racing,” Elsbach said. “The running bug is in their blood. He’s impressed me with how determined he’s been in animal welfare.”    Tuttle counts an appreciation of horses as one of his perks of working at the track all these years. His wife Leslie, who also is an interior designer, is an active equestrian and prime caretaker of their off-track Thoroughbred. Their daughter Annie just graduated from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and their son William liked the school so much when he visited Annie that he enrolled there, too. Both Annie and William ride, and William plays polo. Another sibling, 24-year-old Libby, is a schoolteacher in Costa Rica.    “I got an appreciation for horses as a track worker and a fan, both,” Tuttle said. “I have an appreciation for how hard they try to essentially make us happy. I got a greater appreciation once I got one. For those of us who didn’t come up through the barn area or racing side, it was a new experience, and understanding how challenging it can be to care for them with their individual temperaments.  At Suffolk Downs, we work very hard to be at the forefront of horse safety and welfare.”    Seven years ago, Tuttle acquired I Testify. “He’s a striking gray horse; a classic hard-knocking claimer,” Tuttle said. “He got to Suffolk Downs in the second half of his career. I watched him for years.” I Testify was racing in low-level claimers when Tuttle offered his trainer $2,000 for the horse. The trainer agreed. “I thought the horse deserved a second career,” Tuttle said. “In July, 2011, I retired him with the idea of him being a pleasure horse or a trail runner.” He also re-named him Sebastian and rides him for pleasure.    Elsbach had never been to a racetrack when the agreement with Suffolk Downs was announced. Tuttle invited him and his family to this year’s opening day festival.  “My son Asher and I went to Suffolk,” Elsbach said. “Chip hosted us. My son is 13. He thought it was great. We had a wonderful time. We got down to be with the horsemen, riders, judges, track superintendent, and grooms. These are tremendous animals. There’s a huge investment in them. They are astoundingly taken care of. Chip is very committed to that. That puts my mind at ease. He’s committed to the industry and the culture of the horsemen and what it means to their families and the ancillary work that goes with it.”    Elsbach remains hopeful that a revival at Great Barrington will happen. “Things seem to be falling into place,” he said. “It benefits the HPBA and everyone connected to racing. We would allow racing to continue. If this can help the industry, it has tremendous benefit throughout the state.”    If it doesn’t happen, racing at Suffolk Downs will go down for good, and the last festival this year will end live Thoroughbred racing in the state. “It’s sad to see New England racing come down to this,” Raffetto said. “These festivals were supposed to get us to another location. Hopefully, that’s the case.”    Tuttle said, “We’ve got a real strong relationship with New England horsemen. We’ve been through tough times together. We looked around and said, ‘How do we keep this going?’”    They found a way.
By Bill Heller

Is it coincidence or destiny that Suffolk Downs’ chief operating officer Chip Tuttle became a marathon runner? Because he’s been in for the long haul, trying to keep Thoroughbred racing alive in his native state of Massachusetts for decades.

While nagging injuries have put his marathon running on hold, Tuttle has been moving full-throttle forward to on the horseracing end of things by reviving the Great Barrington Fair, which has been dormant for 20 years.

Live racing at Suffolk Downs, the last Thoroughbred track still operating in what was once a vibrant racing state, has been on life support since 2014 when it lost a bid as a casino site. Instead, a casino was granted to Wynn Resorts’ Encore Boston Harbor in Everett, 15 minutes from Suffolk Downs. It’s scheduled to open in 2019.

Full racing seasons at Suffolk have been pared to a handful of weekend festivals with food trucks, live music, family activities, a weekend jockey challenge, horsemen’s shipping charges covered, and exorbitant purses averaging more than $50,000 per race daily. This year, $10,000 claimers raced for a purse of $41,000 on June 9th and June 10th.

Two of this year’s three festivals remain, on July 7-8 and August 4-5, and another may be added in the fall. The weekends were spaced out so that owners with Massachusetts-breds could compete in three different stakes during the year.

But that’s it, especially if Amazon decides to locate its second headquarters at the 161-acre Suffolk Downs property which Boston-based HYM Investment Group purchased for $155 million in May, 2017. A decision is expected by Amazon, whose headquarters are in Seattle, Washington, by October. If Amazon chooses another site, Suffolk could squeeze in one more year of festivals.

How long can a patient last on life support? There are only two possible conclusions: the patient recovers or the patient dies.

TO READ MORE -- 

BUY THIS ISSUE IN PRINT OR DOWNLOAD -

August - October 2018, issue 49 (PRINT)

$5.95

August - October 2018, issue 49 (DOWNLOAD)

$3.99

Why not subscribe?

Don't miss out and subscribe to receive the next four issues!

Print & Online Subscription

$24.95

Feeding for Weaning Success

Val Brinkerhoff - CTT Trainer Profile

0