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Local Residents Want Vote on Any Great Barrington Plans

13th December, 21:38

Great Barrington Fairgrounds is an option for live racing in Massachusetts.

The return of live racing to the shuttered Great Barrington Fairgrounds in Western Massachusetts hit another snag at a special town meeting Dec. 11 when local residents voted overwhelmingly to adopt a home rule petition to send to their legislators.

The petition, which would require a vote at a town meeting to approve the plan before any track plans could move forward, now goes to state lawmakers representing the district. The petition requests that state lawmakers introduce legislation requiring citizen approval at both the annual town meeting and by a majority ballot vote before any future issuance of a live Thoroughbred license to an operator.

Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC, the former owner of Suffolk Downs that retained the rights to continue to operate live racing and simulcasting after the East Boston racetrack was sold in 2017, has proposed refurbishing the fairgrounds and hosting a short live meet there, perhaps as early as 2020. The last live meet at the fairgrounds was held in 1998, and an investment estimated to be between $15 million to $20 million by SSR would be required to restore its suitability for racing. SSR has already begun performing due diligence, including the commission of engineering and other studies.

Chip Tuttle, SSR's chief operating officer, was unavailable for comment. He has stated repeatedly in the past that SSR will not move forward with its plans unless favorable legislation is passed and the current state racing laws are overhauled.

Massachusetts lawmakers, who Aug. 1 authorized an extension of the existing law through Jan. 15, 2020, are expected to take up the matter next month. One of the major changes SSR requires before moving forward is the authorization as a licensee to conduct its live racing and year-round simulcasting operations at different venues and in different counties. Senate Bill 101 and House Bill 13 include language that would set the stage for SSR to move live racing to the far western part of Massachusetts while centering the simulcasting business in Boston.

At the Great Barrington special town meeting, about 150 voters turned out, and reportedly only two of the 10 who spoke publicly were in support of the return of Thoroughbred racing. Opponents expressed concern about animal cruelty, traffic and infrastructure woes, environmental concerns, and changes to the character of the town, among other issues. Opposition to SSR's plan has gathered steam in recent months, and a member of a group called Citizens Concerned About GB Horse Racing said the senate bill contains language that threatens the town's autonomy.

In related news, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission unanimously approved SSR's proposal to allow online sports betting provider FanDuel to offer mobile wagering services to in-state customers. Sports betting is still not legal, although Gov. Charlie Baker supports the measure and has stated he expects it to pass in the January legislative session. SSR's deal with FanDuel is designed to attract new fans and introduce bettors to horse racing.